HIDALGO — Edinburg’s A’nnika Saenz began the earliest days of her basketball career at the Hidalgo Youth Center, which made it a fitting place to bring the latest chapter of her journey on the hardwood to a close while starting the next one.

That’s where Edinburg High’s standout senior guard signed her national letter of intent with coaches, family and teammates during a ceremony Thursday to continue playing college basketball at UTRGV.

“It was just an amazing full-circle moment, especially doing it at the center where I was basically born and raised on that court. It was a really sentimental moment, and it was to show and give recognition to the people that deserved it most,” Saenz said.

“It was just like being able to hold them up to the pedestals. They really deserved yesterday. … It was just a day filled with emotion and I was just extremely grateful for everyone that was there, like for my teachers, my teammates, and my counselor who were there, it just meant a lot.”

Edinburg High’s A’nnika Saenz (10) attempts a basket against Edinburg Vela in a 31-6A game at Edinburg Vela High School on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Saenz becomes the second Bobcats’ basketball star to join the Vaqueros women’s basketball program in the last two years, joining forces with long-time teammate and fellow home-grown star Brianna Sanchez down the road in Edinburg.

“It’s awesome,” Sanchez said. “I’m going to have someone on the team that we share a stronger chemistry on the court because we have played together.”

“Brianna and I talked about it yesterday how she knows how I plan and I know how she plays. We play to each other’s strengths and we try and uplift each other’s weaknesses,” Saenz said. “I really cannot wait to start summer workouts with them on June 14. She already told me I’m already gonna love my (new) teammates because they’re really fun and they’re really exciting and goofy. … I’ve been Miss playing with Brianna. I can’t wait to play another four years ahead of me, but I really can’t wait to finish off my collegiate career with her.”

Saenz is the latest in a string of Bobcat basketball stars to graduate her game to the collegiate level.

She becomes the seventh player from Edinburg High’s 2017-18 girls basketball roster, her freshman season of varsity ball, and ninth during head coach John David Salinas’ tenure to sign a collegiate letter of intent and the fourth in the last two years joining Sanchez, Coastal Bend College freshman Leslie Martinez and fellow Edinburg senior Daysha Tijerina.

Edinburg High’s A’nnika Saenz (10) drives to the net against PSJA North in a District 31-5A game at Edinburg High School on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Saenz, Tijerina and teammate Julissah Santa Maria graduate together with four consecutive district championships and more team playoff game appearances (13) than any group of active high school girls or boys basketball players across the Rio Grande Valley.

“It’s just an amazing experience to have had to really be along this ride (together) these past four years. I would never have traded it for the world,” Saenz said. “I know that I was one of the leaders this year, but I felt an obligation to be a good teammate to them as well. Those high-pressure moments are what everybody dreams for and it’s what makes big-time players at those times. It was just those moments where you just had to realize that some of these games could be the last games of your high school career, so you just have to step up.”

Saenz finishes a prolific high school career as one of the most decorated Bobcat stars in recent program history.

She led the RGV with 20.1 points per game as a junior and posted career highs in rebounds (5.3) and assists (4.0) as a senior while averaging 12.8 points per game.

Saenz also capped off a strong senior campaign with co-District 31-6A MVP honors and a spot on The Monitor’s 2020-21 All-Area Girls Basketball First Team.

Edinburg High’s A’nnika Saenz (10) drives to the basket against San Antonio Warren in a Class 6A area state playoff game at Corpus Christi Veterans High School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Corpus Christi. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

She leaves Edinburg High with the third-most career points (1,235) of any players across the Valley despite having her sophomore and junior seasons cut short by knee injuries.

Saenz now heads to UTRGV as the valedictorian of her graduating class where she will reunite with Sanchez to continue representing the RGV on the court and in the classroom.

“I feel proud that we are given the opportunity to represent the Valley.,” Sanchez said. “It’s not easy to play DI basketball so having Annie there, especially because we are comfortable with each other, is going to make playing basketball exciting for this upcoming season.”

“One of the biggest factors was that it was close to home. But I mean, coming out of high school as valedictorian I mean, you always want to have the best education possible,” Saenz said.

“I can’t articulate just how proud and how much gratitude I have towards everybody who has helped me get to this point. … UTRGV is growing, especially like their engineering program and their medical program, as well. I feel like this is the best option for me. It’s a full ride and I get to, if I potentially want to, go for a PhD. It really just has everything and means everything to me to stay here.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch