What is the difference between this year and last for Coach Lalo Rios and the Jags? Where to begin . . .

This time the other schools know that Econ, 17-14 last season for the first playoff trip in Rios’ tenure, has talent, so the Jags won’t be sneaking up on anyone. The good news is, they won’t have to do much sneaking: by handing out a No. 2 pre-season ranking in District 31-5A to the Orange, league coaches have admitted that Rios’ bunch is nearing the head of the class.

“Well, it is good to be ranked there, though you really never know where your team will end up,” said Rios, starting his fifth season on the East Side after replacing his father Albert. “But this year we have a solid group back, depth for the first time, and the basketball IQ of these kids is there.”

It’s been a long slog for Rios, the former EHS and UTPA star, but last season the work paid off with a playoff trip, the program’s first since 2005. People think they will do it again and Rios doesn’t disagree.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs, definitely, but since I have had these guys for such a long period of time, they are starting to do things now without me asking, like I am thinking it and they are already doing it. We are all on the same wavelength now, and that is something I have been working on for years here.”

What does this growth in instinct and sync mean in the end?

“Now, I know how good EHS is, they’re the favorite, no question,” said the excitable Rios, whose team scrimmaged San Benito and Weslaco East at home Saturday. “But we are just crazy enough over here to think we can contend for a the district title. We want to be able to face the best and for that one night, play a better 32 minutes than they do. We think it can be done.”

Rios brings back four starters from last year’s breakthrough squad, including 6-foot-2 John Barrientos, a do-it-all junior who is one of the most skilled kids in the Valley. He averaged 14 points and seven rebounds despite a modest second-half slide, and the coach says that as JB goes, so the team goes.

“He is a leader and the kids follow him, so we need him to stay cool and do what he can do,” said Rios of the long-armed junior who can pass, run the floor and block shots along with having a knack for scoring from any spot on the floor. “John looks ready to have a big year.”

Joining him in the lineup are a trio of steady hands, with J.J. Velasquez, Jorge Gonzalez, and Ricky Cantu, each of whom played a prominent role in the unit’s rise to the postseason, where it lost to a very salty Brownsville Hanna team.

Velasquez can defend and handle, while the streaky Gonzalez is a confident veteran who can get hot in stretches. Cantu, though just 5-11, it a force underneath as he gets great position and truly wants every board.

The X factor might be depth, as Rios suggested. The Zuniga Boys, Christian and Jorge, return, with the former contributing hustle at guard and the latter providing perhaps the team’s best three-point threat.

After that, look for a threesome of long-bodied newcomers to get quality minutes, led by sharpshooting Eric Rodriguez. Andy Duarte, who started at safety as a sophomore footballer, will definitely help once he gets into basketball shape, while rangy Felix Alfaro might be set to spell the posts from time to time.

Barrientos’ older brother Joseph is also on hand to D up opposing guards so altogether, it adds up to a potentially dynamite season for Econ, which scrimmages at Weslaco Thursday before beginning the regular season next Tuesday on the road versus La Joya Palmview.

“We go 10 deep, so we’ve got more depth than ever,” Rios said. “These are veteran kids who know what they need to do, and it’s refreshing to finally have so many kids dedicated to basketball year around. I have not had to do as much teaching of basics this season so far, they see things on the court and they do what needs to be done.”

He thinks the Jags are ready to live up to the No. 2 ranking.

“It shows how far the program has come, for sure,” he commented. “The best part is, they are showing that they can fix problems internally, on the fly. They talk to each other and get things right, which is the mark of a real team.”

NOTES: On the girls’ side, the city has started with the top two teams in the Valley, North at No. 1 and EHS at No. 2. Three returning All-Valley players, Bianca Casas and Laura Torres of the Lady Bobcats and the Lady Coogs’ Vicky Pena, are among the top Players to Watch coming in.