EDINBURG — Harvest Christian Academy came within one game of a Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools final four trip last season, falling to the St. Paul Cardinals 45-32 in the quarterfinals.

The Eagles’ season ended with a 19-3 overall record following their loss to St. Paul, including a 5-2 mark against Class 4A-6A opponents.

This year, the Eagles are looking to get back to the playoffs and accomplish what no Valley team has done in basketball at the UIL or TAPPS level — win a state championship.

Eagles head coach Jaime Gonzalez credits last season’s playoff exit to the physicality and speed of the Cardinals. To prepare his team for a state title run this season, Gonzalez devised a schedule full of Class 4A, 5A and 6A opponents, putting his team through a gauntlet nonconference slate prior to district play.

“What better way is there than working on it in practice, but then letting it transition to our non-district schedule,” Gonzalez said. “So, let’s play the biggest schools around here and get in the biggest tournaments we can. If we can compete against the 5A and 6A schools, we can compete in the 2A TAPPS level.”

Building a schedule filled with opponents from the top UIL classes was no easy task, Gonzalez said, with most team’s viewing a game against a small private school as a contest with nothing to gain and everything to lose. Additionally, the Harvest Christian’s small home gym, which Gonzalez compared to most bigger schools’ practice gyms, deterred teams from wanting to make the trip to play the Eagles at their home court.

Still, after dozens of emails, phone calls and voicemails, Gonzalez was able to assemble a nonconference schedule he deemed worthy.

“It was difficult, believe me,” Gonzalez said. “But we were fortunate enough to get quite a bit of games. My thing is, I didn’t want to go in there and not be competitive and have to apologize to a coach afterwards. … I think for the most part everybody we’ve played we’ve at least gained their respect. We’ve also won a majority of those games, so that says a lot about the girls as well.”

Through 23 games, the Eagles have shown they can hang with bigger programs, opening the season with five straight wins against Brownsville Lopez, Donna High, Edcouch-Elsa, Edinburg North and Weslaco East, all Class 5A and 6A schools.

They have amassed a 17-6 overall record, including 11-4 against 4A-6A schools.

“Numbers are just a number,” Harvest Christian senior Haylee Vasquez said. “At the end of the day, they’re only allowed to put five players on the court. We just have to stay focused. At the end of the day, it’s more exposure to us and more competition to push us and make us better.”

Even during their losses, which have come against Class 5A and 6A schools such as Edinburg Vela and McAllen High, the Eagles have earned the respect of opposing coaches.

“Harvest Christian Academy is a good little team,” McAllen High head coach Stephanie Cantu said. “(They have) great guards who can shoot from the outside and are dangerous attackers off the dribble. (They are) a good all-around team, impressive for a private school.”

One player on everyone’s radar this season is sophomore guard Ashley Gonzalez, who burst onto the scene as a freshman after averaging 26.8 point per game.

Despite seeing an increase in double-teams and traps to slow her down, Gonzalez, who is the head coach’s daughter, has continued to shine for the Eagles, averaging 21.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this year.

Harvest Christian’s Ashley Gonzalez during a team practice at the schools gymnasium Monday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Sophomore Lexi Garcia adds another scoring presence for the Eagles, averaging 13.1 points per game, while senior Jessica Muñoz is averaging a near double-double with 9.1 points and eight rebounds per contest.

With 22 of their 23 games this season played on the road, the Eagles have spent countless hours together on car rides. Those trips have helped the team build a bond and chemistry that has led to success on the court.

“On the court we’re really great at working together, getting all our shots up and getting good shots,” Muñoz said. “Off the court, we’ve been bonding a lot better now. We’re always together. It’s a small school, so we always are together.”

Harvest Christian Academy girls basketball team during a team practice at the schools gymnasium Monday in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

With several returners from last season, including their leading scorer, Gonzalez said anything short of a state title would be a disappointment this season, adding he believes his team has worked out the kinks from last season.

One large test potentially looms, however, with a rematch against this season’s state-title favorites, the St. Paul Cardinals, possibly standing in their way.

Still, Gonzalez said he believes his team has shown they are ready for the task at hand.

“So far, I’m really pleased with our physicality, speed, rebound and all that,” Gonzalez said. “Our girls have been able to hang toe-totoe with the bigger schools down here. I feel really good going into district play. I think we’re ready.

“I was asked last night what I expected out of this year. I said if we don’t win a state title this year, it’ll be a disappointment to me, because I know exactly the gap we needed to close. If I couldn’t close that gap in a year, that’s on me. So, a state championship is what we’re aiming for and hopefully be able to have come March.”

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