HIDALGO — Nestled near the banks of the Rio Grande River in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border, a basketball revolution has started to unfold.
A pair of schools once considered to be on the outside looking in at South Texas’ girls hoops hierarchy have upended perceptions and thrust themselves into the conversation as two of the area’s premier programs.
Hidalgo and Valley View, two rivals separated only by a small stretch of highway, have built themselves into two of the Valley’s strongest squads on the hardwood. The Pirates and Tigers are out to earn respect, prove they’re no longer up-and-coming teams and establish their presence as RGV perennial powers.
“We’re growing,” Valley View head coach Arnold Martinez said. “We’ve had some headaches and pains the last two or three years.”
Valley View has soared to new heights under Martinez, its fourth-year head coach. Thanks to an influx of youth and talent, the Tigers look primed to compete for their first district championship and playoff appearance in more than a decade.
Despite being one of the younger teams in District 32-5A, Valley View has tallied an impressive 22-6 overall mark and a 5-1 district record, stumbling only once to reigning district champion Brownsville Veterans after leading for three quarters.
The Tigers topped several elite teams in their non-district slate, though, including wins over PSJA Memorial, Rio Grande City and twice defeating Sharyland High. But after a disappointing end to their turnaround season a year ago, Martinez and his team have their eyes on the prize.
“Last year we missed the playoffs by one game. They knew after last year how bad you have to want it,” he said. “We only have two seniors, so we’re really looking forward to the future but we’re not going to let this season go by. We want to punch a playoff ticket. I just think that this season we’ve grown, we’ve stumbled and we stood back up.”
This new group of Tigers is seeking to become the first to power the team into the playoffs since it moved up to the 5A level. Offensively, the team is buoyed by a bevy of talented shooters like Daniela Garza, Lexi Ortegon and Julie Ponce who can hit from outside or drive the lane and slash their way to the basket.
But Valley View’s secret weapon on the offensive end is Jimena Muñoz, a crafty center who can bury shots from the top of the key and post up against bigger defenders in the low post. Muñoz is such a dynamic force scoring and rebounding that she creates inherent mismatches that free up the team’s guards and forwards along the perimeter.
“We found a good girl who’s a junior, Jimena Muñoz, and we say, ‘Don’t forget about her, she’s good inside,’” Martinez said. “Basically it’s shooting the ball well, hitting 3s and getting the ball inside to Jimena. Those are our strengths.”
But two aspects of the game that both the Tigers and Pirates share in common are their commitment to playing aggressive up-tempo, full-court defense and incredible team speed.
Valley View runs an in-your-face man-to-man scheme up and down the floor, using its quickness up and down the lineup to seamlessly switch assignments defensively and present its opponent with different matchups.
Hidalgo, meanwhile, will dare its opponents to break through its stifling full-court presses and traps, which it relies on to fluster opponents from the jump and score as quickly as possible.
“Our strength really is our speed on defense. We really, really stress man-to-man defense and get out in the break and shoot as many 3s as we can,” Martinez said. “Mainly for everyone who plays us, we’re probably one of the very few teams that plays man the whole game. We condition for it. I believe in my team about that.”
“We’re fast, really fast,” Hidalgo senior guard Savannah Sanchez said. “We just focus on defense and transitions.”
Speed and chemistry are what truly define the Pirates, a squad that’s led by a club of six seniors — Carolina Carbajal, Elisa De La Peña, Vanessa Espinoza, Soleil Garza, Melanie Salinas and Sanchez — who have played together in the same ultra up-tempo system since they were seventh graders and share a defense-first mindset.
“They want to be a quick scoring team. They want to score really quick so they can go play defense,” Hidalgo head coach Saul Arjona said. “After this season we’re going to lose a very good group. We’re going to miss them.”
Hidalgo got off to a bit of a slow start this year, as the team’s veteran leaders tried to mentor the fresh faces coming off the bench and weave them into the rotation.
“Coming into the season it was kind of bumpy because some of the girls were coming back from volleyball. We have a new bench and a lot of youth,” senior post Soleil Garza said. “They’ve had to work on it, but we’ve been teaching them along the way. They’re getting the hang of it and getting used to how we roll.”
The Pirates’ business is rolling their opponents, particularly in district play.
Hidalgo currently sits at 25-4 overall with an unblemished 6-0 district record. Aside from a one-point overtime victory at Rio Hondo, the team has smashed their District 32-4A competition by an average of 51.2 points per game with four girls averaging double figures in scoring.
“We put a lot of emphasis in practice on shooting and transition baskets,” Arjona said. “I tell the girls, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball. You don’t have to run a play. If the play goes that way but you’re open, take it and forgot about it.’ They have a lot of confidence and they have the green light to take anything they can.”
“Honestly, I feel that we can compete against the 5As and schools that are bigger than us,” Garza said.
It’s not a matter of conjecture, either. Hidalgo has already tested its mettle against a host of the top teams in 5A and 6A, including double-digit victories over Brownsville Hanna, Edinburg Vela, Mission Veterans, PSJA North, Rio Grande City and Sharyland Pioneer, all of which would be playoff teams based upon current standings.
But despite all of their achievements to this point, both the Pirates and Tigers remain unsatisfied with their recent success and hungry for more respect. Hidalgo and Valley View both realize that in order to catch the attention of basketball fans statewide, they’ll have to carry their hot starts into the playoffs.
“I think we should have been up there. The girls were a little disappointed and I told them, ‘Use it as a motivational tool.’ They were like, ‘Coach, we can’t believe this. We’re working so hard to be on top and we’re never on top,’” Arjona said. “I think it’s making these girls believe that they can play harder because they want to be up there. I think we’re pretty confident right now and we’re working a lot to prepare for the playoffs. This is the year where we want to take district and take this as far as we can.”
“It’s my fourth year and sometimes in the past, I wanted to call it quits. It’s been tough, but we found these girls this year that really bought in,” Martinez said. “They have speed, they’re young, they have energy, they come to practice and they believed in the offseason. Now it shows. We couldn’t do this in the past. We are the new kids on the block and we might not be that after this year, but we don’t plan on going back downhill any time soon.”