McALLEN — As basketball season across the Rio Grande Valley nears its end, many teams know where they stand and where they’re headed as the playoff picture becomes progressively more clear.
That’s not the case for a pair of bitter rivals, who are still unsure if they’ll be playing in a bi-district playoff game, sitting at home or preparing for a play-in game.
That’s what’s at stake for the McAllen High Bulldogs and the McAllen Rowe Warriors, who will be battling until the bitter end for the fourth and final playoff spot out of District 30-6A. Currently, McHi and Rowe are tied at 6-6 in district action with just two games to go apiece in one of the Valley’s toughest districts from top to bottom.
“I think on any given night any team can beat anybody. At this point, it’s just Xs and Os and the mental preparation going into every game,” Rowe head coach Alejandro Robles said. “You’ve had teams that win by double digits and then you have two- and three-point games that are coming down to the last possession. It’s been like that since the first round all the way up to now. I think it’s the most competitive night in and night out for sure.”
“For us it’s been pretty competitive,” McHi center Celina Saenz said. “Every game we know it’s going to be hard. We all just have to push through; there’s no break. Every game is tough.”
The Bulldogs (16-18, 6-6) have had to overcome a season full of hardships just to remain in the playoff hunt. With one of the younger rosters in the Valley already, McHi has had to weather several significant injuries to keep pace in district play.
A majority of the team’s rotation players have been temporarily or permanently sidelined due to injuries, including starting point guard Genesis Garza who tore her ACL the last time the Bulldogs and Warriors met, a one-point McHi win to even the season series.
“I think everyone just knew what we had to do. If we lose a player, somebody has to step up,” Saenz said. “I think people have stepped up, whether it be from the bench or JV, and they’ve just pushed themselves to play harder because they know we needed it.”
Saenz has been a steadying presence in the paint for the Bulldogs all season. One of the most versatile players in the RGV, she has posted 9.6 points, 15.3 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game with a revolving door of rotation players playing alongside her for stretches.
Saenz’s rebounding numbers rank her third in the state in that category, according to MaxPreps.com, which has come to define the gritty and scrappy nature of her and her team’s style of play.
“I tell the girls before every game, ‘Whatever it takes. If that ball is on the floor, you guys all wear knee pads for a reason, so use them.’ A lot of the girls have holes in their knee pad,” McHi head coach Stephanie Cantu said. “On the boards, I tell Celina and Addi, ‘You’re magnets. As soon as that ball goes up, you’re flying because we’re trying to get that board.’ If it’s our offensive board, we need to score and put it back up. If it’s theirs, we don’t want to give them extra opportunities to score.”
The Bulldogs managed to pull off a miraculous turnaround midway through the district schedule. After dropping four of their first six district contests, they rattled off wins in four of their next five games to vault their way back into the playoff conversation.
“The key to turning it around was knowing that in the first round we didn’t do our best,” Saenz said. “In the second round, we didn’t want to be counted out so early. We didn’t want to go down without a fight. We didn’t want to give other teams the satisfaction of saying, ‘We beat McHi twice.’”
The Warriors’ (17-12, 6-6) road to this moment, though, was more difficult to traverse and harder to have predicted.
Rowe finished a tough 2018-19 campaign with a 2-32 record and losses in 24 of its final 25 games. But it’s hard to argue that this season has been anything short of a remarkable turnaround after improving by 15 games already and currently sit on the precipice of the program’s first playoff appearance since 2016.
“We would have gotten pretty far from last year,” Rowe center Yulissa Yebra said. “It would be redemption. We just need to get there as a team.”
“It’s probably the team unity. Last year the girls were very close, but this year they’re having more of a team night before the games and they’re more cohesive together,” Robles said. “That goes back to the offseason last year and playing in weekend tournaments either here, at the (RGV) Vipers’ facility, Valley View, playing almost every weekend throughout the whole summer. It really shows. It shows that they understand one another and know one another. I think that’s the difference.”
The Warriors also made a dramatic turnaround at the start of district play thanks to their tight-knit team chemistry and their scrappy, physical defense. After two brutal losses to begin the district slate, Rowe has either beaten or lost by one possession to eight of the last 10 opponents, claiming six victories during that span.
“Our confidence has really improved and our defense as well,” Yebra said. “I think when we get scrappy, we do want it a lot more than other teams.”
“Last year was a real tough year for a lot of our girls and I think going into the first part of district and playing two of the toughest teams right off the bat with La Joya and Memorial, I think it took a little while for the girls to be like, ‘We can compete with whoever any given night,’” Robles said. “They’re just growing each and every game. If we need a win, it’s going to have to be a collective team effort and we’re getting there slowly but surely.”
The Bulldogs will close out their regular season with a road game at McAllen Memorial at 6 p.m. Friday before closing out at home against PSJA High on Tuesday at the same time. The Warriors, meanwhile, will wrap up district play with a trip to PSJA High at 6 p.m. Friday and a home game against Mission High on Tuesday at the same time.
If both teams are still tied, they will then face off against each other one more time in a play-in game for 30-6A’s fourth and final playoff seed.
Although both McHi and Rowe would like to avoid that scenario, a playoff berth would be a significant achievement for either program and would feel even sweeter at expense of snatching it from a crosstown rival.
“Some of us talk and we know that it’s crunch time,” Saenz said. “It would feel great because we’ve put so much work in practice and we wouldn’t want our season to end that quickly. Our goal has been to make the playoffs. That’s what we want because that’s what we can still get at this point.”
“It would mean everything. After going what we went through last year and going 2-32 and to get to this point, just them knowing that all their hard work, all their tears, all the hardship they went through that is starting to show the success,” Robles said. “Just because some people saw it as a failure last year, we didn’t; we were just growing. We’re continuing to grow, we’re fairly young across the board and to show this much growth in a year is something special to see. If we can finish that end goal of making it into the playoffs would just be the cherry on top. There’s no denying that.”