RIO GRANDE CITY — It’s often said that there’s no substitute for experience, but Rio Grande City has flipped that notion on its head this season.

The Rattlers, who are coming off a fourth-place finish in District 31-5A and a trip to the state playoffs, appeared to be heading toward a rebuilding year from the outside looking in. They graduated six seniors, or 55% of the roster, from the 2018-19 group that played an integral role in the team’s success.

This season, however, Rio Grande City has reloaded instead of rebuilt. The team has integrated a young core of eight underclassmen to complement its two lone seniors, wing Sarah Martinez and superstar power forward Alyssa Reyna.

Now, under the veteran leadership of Reyna and with their younger players stepping up across the board, the Rattlers look ready to strike and poised to improve off last year’s success.

“Last year, I feel like we didn’t really work together as a team,” sophomore center Emily Lopez said. “There wasn’t really any communication and I feel like our mindsets weren’t as good. But now I feel like we all have a good bond together and all of us have worked together to bring us here where we are.”

The team credits their improved play to better communication and a stronger bond to one another, both of which were strengthened by the group’s experience over the summer both on and off the court.

“We made the playoffs, but I feel like we were nothing compared to this year,” said Reyna, Rio Grande City’s leading scorer and rebounder. “For sure, speed and just our bond are better. Last year, we didn’t play as much as a team as this year. We played a lot in summer, so I feel like all the time we spent in the summer and all the time, even without basketball, we just always hung out. I feel like it just grew our bond overall.”

Emily Lopez and Reyna have combined to create one of the most formidable post duos throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

Reyna provides a punch for the Rattlers in every phase of the game, as she leads her team in points (14.5), rebounds (8.7) and steals (3.0) per game. Emily Lopez, meanwhile, has been a spark plug for the team down low, averaging 7.8 rebounds per contest while also leading the Rattlers in blocks (47 total).

“Definitely, the more aggressive you are, the more points and rebounds and everything you’re going to get,” Reyna said. “I feel like me and our other post, Emily, we want the ball. We do all the fighting we can down there to get the ball. And if we get it, we have it in our heads that we need to go up with it and score.”

“We all just have that mindset of even if they’re bigger than us or smaller, we’re going to come to an advantage where we’re going to figure out a way to score,” Emily Lopez said. “If we go in all weak, obviously it’s not going to go well for us. We have to go in being really aggressive crashing the boards and stuff and it will obviously help us score really easily.”

The duo has thrived against their competition down the stretch in a district that’s replete with prolific post players. But it wasn’t always that way for the Rattlers.

“I think earlier in the year that things were not going great,” Rio Grande City head coach Gus Valenciana said. “It was easy for them to stop playing hard or doing what we needed to do. I think they’ve learned to fight through it. I think that’s helped us a lot and they’ve been practicing hard, working hard and doing a lot of conditioning and fast break drills.”

That’s another element of their game that has helped the Rattlers separate themselves from their competition: speed.

Rio Grande City runs the floor whenever possible, seeking to dissect opposing defenses and score easy buckets in transition.

“In practice, our coach makes us do fast break drills like we do in game situations,” Emily Lopez said. “When it comes to game time, it’s basically just like a practice to us. Everything we do in practice we just do in the games and it helps us score a lot.”

“Our strengths are pushing the ball, getting fast breaks and easy layups. Basically, just running the court,” said sophomore guard Melanie Lopez, who has been an instrumental part of the team’s up-tempo attack.

In her first season on the varsity squad, Melanie Lopez has led the team in assists (106) and ranks second in steals (92) and points per game (14.4) only behind Reyna. She and freshman point guard Britzeida Sanchez have matured and improved at a quick pace just in time for the Rio Grande City to catch fire down the stretch.

The Rattlers went 11-3 in one of the more top-heavy districts throughout South Texas and their confidence began to skyrocket during the second run through district play.

“No one thought we should (be this good). Mission Vets even said we shouldn’t have beaten them the first time and that the refs just helped us,” Reyna said. “But we showed them; we went back and beat them by more. I do feel like we were underdogs. Nobody thought we would do good this season and we showed them and proved them wrong.”

“Here in the second round (of district play) we started off at Mission Vets and that’s a tough place to win,” Valenciana said. “When we were able to do that, I think it gave the girls a lot of confidence. They were very excited after that game.”

That confidence and excitement has carried over to the beginning of the postseason, as Reyna has embraced her role as the team’s on-court leader.

“I actually like it a lot. I thought it would be way more stressful and a lot tougher,” she said. “Now I don’t just have to focus on myself, I need to focus on each one of them. I need to make sure they know what they’re doing. It’s more not about me, but all of us together.”

The Rattlers will enter the playoffs with a bi-district game at Mercedes at 7 p.m. Monday, a rematch of last season’s first-round matchup when the Tigers notched a three-point comeback win in Rio Grande City.

Now, the team will be looking to silence their critics and set the bar even higher for a program with a very bright future on the horizon.

“I honestly feel like we will (surprise some people). A lot of people doubted us,” Emily Lopez said. “They didn’t even think we would get to the playoffs, but look at us now: second place and in the playoffs. Hopefully we surprise people even more with more playoff spots.”

“I think we have a chance to beat some teams that many people think we can’t beat. I think we have the potential to win some games,” Melanie Lopez said. “I’m just proud of how hard everyone has worked. I never saw us winning this many games.”