MISSION — Sharyland Pioneer is the Rio Grande Valley’s last Class 5A team standing entering the second round of the UIL state playoffs, a place the Diamondbacks have never been before.
“The kids are excited, you know. It’s uncharted territory for us,” Pioneer head coach Tom Lee said. “We hadn’t won a playoff game, so they don’t really know what it’s like to play in Week 2 (of the postseason), so it’s been great. The kids have been really energetic and when you get this late in the year, your practices aren’t very long anymore. It’s just kind of fine tune some things and learn about what the next team is going to present.”
That next challenge for Sharyland Pioneer (10-1, 6-0) is an area-round matchup Friday against Plfugerville Weiss (9-2, 6-1) at Cabaniss Stadium in Corpus Christi.
Lee said the Weiss Wolves have an athletic group just like the Diamondbacks do. They also run a spread attack on offense, something Pioneer has run extremely well in 2019.
“They’ve got the kids who are going to be able to try to match up with us, and we’re not going to change what we’re doing,” Lee said. “We’re going to continue to throw the ball. We’re going to continue to take what they give us defensively, and then we’re going to keep flying to the ball and hitting people on defense. … In the second round, everybody’s good — you can’t have an off-night.”
There was no off-night for the Diamondbacks in Round 1. Quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger and the Pioneer offense eclipsed the 50-point mark for the seventh time in 11 games en route to 59-14 victory against San Antonio Southside. But it was Pioneer’s defense that made a statement by shutting out the Cardinals in the first half for a 42-0 lead.
Pioneer safety Chis’mere Mallard, a senior in his first season with the Diamondbacks after transferring from McHi last year, credited the work they do in the film room and coaches putting players in position to execute defensively. Mallard, who has 109 tackles in 10 games this year, is also enjoying his first winning season at the varsity level with a defense he’s developed a strong bond with.
“This is completely new to me; I’ve never been a part of something like this,” he said. “Guys are just having fun out here. It’s a brotherhood.”
That brotherhood has playmakers on every level of the defense. Mallard, Marco Oviedo, Alejandro Vasquez, Guillermo Guerrero and Ethan Lee roam the secondary, while Pioneer’s front seven, led by nose guard Erik Torres and linebackers Kyle Sullivan and Jay Palacios, has stepped its game up over the past few weeks. But the player who has taken the biggest strides is senior linebacker Fernando Salcedo.
Pioneer’s leading tackler with 171 stops this season, Salcedo has become a force in the middle of the D-Backs defense.
“I remember last year when Coach Lee brought us into his office and he asked, ‘What do you need to work on so you can get better for next year?’ And all I told him to work on my strength and my speed, so that’s what I went to work on,” Salcedo said.
He spearheads a Diamondbacks defense that’s forced 23 turnovers this season and looking to increase that number in the area round.
“We have been playing with a chip on the shoulder. And it’s been tough to get to where we are, but we’re just gonna keep grinding and keep playing until we can’t no more,” Salcedo said.
Kickoff between Sharyland Pioneer and Pflugerville Weiss is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Cabaniss Stadium in Corpus Christi.