VMS All-STAR Softball: Saucedo collects MVP award

Harlingen South junior pitcher/centerfielder Iliana Saucedo is the Valley Morning Star’s 2021 Softball All-STAR Most Valuable Player. (Courtesy Photo: All Star Photography)

The word Harlingen South coach Elias Martinez uses to describe Iliana Saucedo is “powerhouse,” and it’s surely fitting.

During her junior season, Saucedo tabbed a .500 batting average, .589 on-base percentage and blasted 15 home runs as she recorded 42 RBIs. She also notched a 1.12 ERA with 135 strikeouts across 71 innings pitched.

At the plate and in the circle, Saucedo came up with clutch performances when her team needed them. She led the Lady Hawks to a District 32-6A co-championship and the area round of the playoffs. Saucedo has been named the Valley Morning Star’s 2021 All-STAR Softball Most Valuable Player.

“It’s an honor to me because I put a lot of time and effort into this sport, so it makes me feel honored I got to represent my team with this selection as MVP,” Saucedo said. “I’d like to thank my dad because he’s my pitching coach and hitting coach and fielding coach, and my mom because she’s always relaxing me and telling me not to put too much pressure on me.”

Saucedo also thanked her three senior teammates, which includes her sister, Alexis, for teaching her what South softball is about. Martinez said Saucedo was a leader right along with the senior group.

“She’s such a great leader. She’s a vocal leader, and she leads by example. If someone’s not working hard she’s not afraid to push them to work hard,” Martinez said. “You put her work ethic with her God-given ability, that strong arm, she’s just awesome. … (This award) is rightfully deserved. She was a powerhouse offensively, a powerhouse defensively and she was a powerhouse in the dugout.”

The junior pitcher/center fielder was named the district offensive player of the year for her prowess in the batter’s box. Hitting is what Saucedo feels best at, and nothing tops celebrating at home after going yard.

“It’s my favorite part of the game, and I’m never nervous hitting. I always want to go to the plate and hit it hard,” Saucedo said. “My team gets more hyped up about my home runs than I am, so it’s great to see them when I touch home. It makes me feel good that they trust me all the time to do my thing because they see how I handle pressure.”

Saucedo said she became a more diverse player this season, and the stellar season she put together is motivation to build on during her final year. She has helped turn Harlingen South into one of the premiere programs in the Rio Grande Valley during her career, and she’s determined to have another strong season as a senior.

“I saw more diversity in myself this year. Before I didn’t really play a second position, I was just a hitter and a pitcher. This year I grew, being able to play center field,” Saucedo said. “It gives me more confidence for next year so I can have a good season just like this one.”

Co-Offensive Player of the Year

Emily Delgado, San Benito

Delgado was a standout in a talented Lady Greyhounds lineup.

The versatile sophomore showed her potential during an impressive season in which she led a senior-heavy team with a .404 batting average, nine home runs, 23 hits and 25 RBIs. Her effort earned her the District 32-6A sophomore of the year title.

“It’s a great feeling. In the beginning because of COVID we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season, but we were blessed to have one and it was a great feeling to be out there and now to get this award,” Delgado said. “It pushes me harder to go for my goals and win. It was a great season, and I’m blessed with so many opportunities.”

Delgado didn’t get to play any district games during her shortened freshman season, so she did feel some nerves when the tough district slate began. She credited her teammates for helping her feel comfortable and confident, and she immediately started making an impact.

Though the Lady Greyhounds struggled during the first half of district, Delgado said they worked together to come back strong in the second half to earn a spot in the playoffs. She played first base, third base and pitched to help the resurgence, and had a 2.02 ERA in 52 innings pitched with 39 strikeouts.

“From the beginning we knew we were going to need more than one leader to keep us rolling, and I think we all stepped up. It’s good when you’re on a team where you can all keep each other accountable,” Delgado said.

Delgado has been playing softball since she was 6 years old and has a love for the sport. She’s playing all over Texas and beyond this offseason, and she’s ready to build off her sophomore campaign next season. She credited several coaches that she trains with for developing her talent, and thanked her parents and teammates for their constant support.

“We take a lot of cuts at practice, but after that you go home and you put in more work and you have confidence when you go up there,” Delgado said. “My coaches — Armando Ruvio, Juan Jasso, Alex Anzaldua — I spend so much time with them getting reps in, and they’ve supported me through everything I’ve done and made me into the player I am today.”

Co-Offensive Player of the Year

Mikaela Lopez, Lyford

A junior left fielder, Lopez has been playing softball since she was 3 years old, putting in a lot of work to be her best.

It came to fruition as Lopez shined for the District 31-3A champion Lady Bulldogs this season. She had a .604 batting average, 26 RBIs, 29 hits, seven doubles, four home runs and 12 stolen bases.

“It is a very big deal for me because it really shows how hard I’ve been working. I’ve been doing this since I was a little girl, and it’s a really big accomplishment for myself,” Lopez said.

Lopez was also tabbed the district offensive player of the year. She wanted to do big things as a player and leader for Lyford this season, and she accomplished both. Lopez handled the pressure of being in the heart of the lineup with ease.

“It is a big responsibility being in the cleanup spot,” Lopez said. “I had a bit of a rough start to the season, and I knew I had to get my team somewhere. I knew I had a big role to fill, and I had to step up a little and do a better job this year. … It felt good being able to bring girls in and get the score up. It was exhilarating every time, especially during the playoffs when I was able to get those runs on the board against Santa Gertrudis.”

What brought Lopez the most joy was uplifting her team. If she saw someone was struggling, she wanted to boost them up, and she said her teammates did the same for her. The chemistry made everyone better and led to another strong season for the Lady Bulldogs.

Lyford will be under new direction next season, but Lopez thanked this year’s staff of coach Joey Rios and assistants Albert Garza and LeeAnn Garcia for making her a better player. As a senior, Lopez hopes to have even more individual and team success than in this season that earned her much recognition.

“It gives me something to look forward to and to be better next year, not only for myself but for my team,” Lopez said.

Defensive Player of the Year

Dominique De Jesus, Rio Hondo

The last four years have been incredibly successful for the Rio Hondo Lady Bobcats and Dominique “Domo” De Jesus.

This year was a bit different for the senior, who had to step into a pitching role. De Jesus thrived with her new responsibility, throwing a team-high 35 1/3 innings and striking out 35, notching a 1.19 ERA. She also played third base and had a .955 fielding percentage for the season.

“It means a lot for me being a senior. To be selected again as defensive player of the year (after winning in district) feels amazing,” De Jesus said. “I just give everything I have on the field. I try to get every ball that comes to me, make every play the best I can for my team. That’s the ability I have, to be able to get to the ball as quick as I can to make a play.”

De Jesus said she played a different position every year for Rio Hondo. Her quick reactions and willingness to dive and sell out to make a play makes her a strong position player.

Adding pitcher to her resume this season was not something she expected to do, but just like in everything else, De Jesus gave it her all and helped the Lady Bobcats win their seventh consecutive district title in undefeated fashion.

“It was a big step for me because I hadn’t really pitched the first three years, but I knew I had to keep the streak going for the district title so I just did my best for the team,” De Jesus said. “It was a big challenge for me, but I knew I had to hit my spots and be consistent. I’m not a strikeout pitcher, but my defense worked really hard behind me and that’s all I needed.”

De Jesus called herself “the underdog pitcher” and she was proud of the performances she put together, particularly in battles against district foe Port Isabel.

Going out on top was a great end to her career, and she expressed gratitude to former Rio Hondo coaches Brett and Lizzette Esparza and assistant Debbie Esparza for her success.

“I wouldn’t be this player without my coaches, which were the Esparza family, my teammates and God and my family. I wouldn’t be in this position if they weren’t behind me,” De Jesus said.

Newcomer of the Year

BeAnka Galan, La Feria

It wasn’t always easy being a freshman starter on the La Feria Lionettes team for pitcher/outfielder BeAnka Galan.

Even with the occasional challenges, Galan impressed in her debut season with the Lionettes. As a hitter, she boasted a .480 batting average with eight doubles, three triples, two home runs and 15 RBIs. In the circle, Galan pitched 53 innings and struck out 51 with a 1.98 ERA.

“It means a lot for my first year. I worked hard for that spot. It’s an honor to get this because I practice and I work hard, and I had some tears throughout the games because I tried hard,” Galan said. “I’m very grateful that God has given me this award. It makes me feel good and happy.”

Galan said she was nervous when the season first began and she was competing for a varsity spot. But after making the team and picking up the first win of the season, she fell into a groove and was able to excel.

“I was, like, ‘Can’t mess up, BeAnka.’ I knew I had the skills for it but I couldn’t slack off, and I had to try my best because I knew other girls were competing to try to make varsity, too,” Galan said. “At first it was shaky, but the more I played I got more stable and I felt stronger, and I knew I had a spot there. It felt good.”

Galan said she learned the importance of good team communication in her debut season. She also got mentally stronger and more confident as she learned to block out doubters and showed that she belonged.

With a top newcomer award and a strong season under her belt, Galan is now focused on continuing to work hard with her batting and pitching coaches as she strives for more.

“It makes me want to improve more so I can get recognized more, especially by colleges,” Galan said. “(Thank you) to (Lionettes coach Daryl Gonzales) for always being there to support me when I was down. And also all my teammates and my parents.”

Coach of the Year

Elias Martinez, Harlingen South

District 32-6A is one of the strongest in the Rio Grande Valley, and this year the group was as deep and competitive as ever.

Martinez coached his Lady Hawks to the top of the standings, earning a co-district championship and a trip to the area round of the playoffs. Success is not new for the longtime coach, but this year was different considering the girls were behind after not completing last season. Still, Martinez directed the Lady Hawks to a 19-5-1 season.

“It means a lot because all the hard work we put in as coaches and as a team, to get recognized like this is a great honor and a great privilege. It’s very humbling, and I’m very honored. It’s due to my assistant coaches and our players,” Martinez said. “One of the front points of our team was our mental toughness and our great senior leadership. There was great unity, and you combine that with their skill and it turned out to be a special season.”

Martinez said there was some concern coming into the season about where the girls were skill-wise after having so much time away. But the players did work on their own and participated via Zoom, and once they got some game reps, things came together smoothly.

Practices were tough for the detail-oriented Lady Hawks as Martinez stressed the importance of getting the little things down pat before entering high-stakes games. The hard work was worth it as South went 11-2 in district and secured the No. 1 playoff seed after sweeping the season series against eventual regional semifinalist Los Fresnos.

With a strong foundation firmly in place, Martinez expects the Lady Hawks to continue battling for district titles.

“Our district, every game, they were all tough. There’s no sleepers that you can take a break on, because anybody can beat anybody on any given night,” Martinez said. “That’s what we tell the girls. Games are won and lost in practice. Our girls have bought into the concept of working hard, so when we go to the games we’re very confident because we’ve put in the work.

“We have a great core coming back and some great young players coming in. I think we’re going to be right back in the thick of things.”