McALLEN — When Haley Villalpando first took the court for Weslaco High, it was more than a year and a half since her last game action in a breakout sophomore season for the Edcouch-Elsa Yellow Jackets.
Despite a long layoff from the game and an uphill transition back to it, Villalpando emerged as a veteran leader for a dangerous and talent-rich Weslaco squad.
Villalpando, the Panthers’ senior point guard, led her team to a district championship and third-round playoff appearance with her lockdown defensive play, earning her The Monitor’s All-Area Girls Basketball Defensive Player of the Year award.
“I missed it because even going into my senior season, I missed a few preseason games because my time wasn’t up yet. I was just anticipating every chance I got to show my potential and to show that I didn’t belong in 5A, I belonged in 6A,” Villalpando said. “I worked hard enough to be where I was at. I was just super extremely anxious to get on the court.”
Villalpando had earned a spot on District 32-5A’s All-Defensive Team during her most recent season at Edcouch-Elsa as a sophomore. But after her year-long required competitive basketball hiatus, one of the senior guard’s initial talks with Weslaco High head coach Griselda Fino about defense caught her off guard.
“I remember when I first moved here, Coach Fino told me that I was a good player and I needed to work on my defense,” Villalpando said. “I was confused. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong because defense has always been me.”
After the team lost three starters from the season before, Villalpando stepped in as the Panthers’ starting point guard and instantly became one of their most reliable players on a deep roster.
She averaged 6.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, one block and a team-high 7.8 steals per game in her debut season for Weslaco High, quickly establishing herself as the Valley’s most fearsome perimeter defender with her ability to stifle shooters and jump passing lanes.
“I get so anxious to have the ball in my hands. I see it and I get steals off girls I’m not guarding because I see the ball and I just wanted it,” she said. “As soon as you turn your head and don’t see me, I’m going to go take the ball because that’s my chance. I think hesitation would probably be the worst thing. I don’t hesitate.”
Villalpando helped guide the Panthers to the Border Bash-Border Brawl Tournament championship, a 32-8 overall record, the Panthers’ best in the past five seasons, and an 11-1 district mark.
Villalpando was part of the Weslaco High team that repeated as District 31-6A co-champions with Edinburg High and earned the district’s Defensive Player of the Year award in the process. However, she recalls feeling apprehensive about her role on her new team and the group’s chemistry as a whole.
“I didn’t know if I was going to fit in with the team when the season started,” she said. “A lot of it came down to preseason when nobody believed in us and we were losing to teams we should not have lost to. … When our coaches were finally able to coach us in the season, we got everything together as soon as we could.”
She also helped lead the Panthers into the Class 6A Region IV quarterfinals after they had fallen two successive years in the area round. Villalpando played an instrumental in Weslaco’s playoff wins over Harlingen South and Laredo Nixon while always seeming to shine when the spotlight was at its brightest.
“It was so amazing, and it felt like such a blessing knowing that our hard work was really paying off. We worked hard to be one of the best in the Valley. Our goal has been since before district started to make it back to the Sweet 16,” she said. “Even though we fell just short of making it to the Sweet 16, it was amazing to be ranked in the state and to have made it to the third round because a lot of people didn’t believe that we were going to make it to the first round or the second round.”
But even after her tumultuous transition and atypical path to Weslaco High, Villalpando claims it was all worthwhile to play her senior season for the Panthers after taking her game and the program to new heights.
“I went through a lot not getting signed off but as soon as our season ended when we took that final loss in the third round, I felt extremely overwhelmed with contentment,” Villalpando said. “I felt like it was just so beautiful, and I was so blessed to be a part of it. I know I had to wait a year, but I feel like it was all worth it in the end.”