EDINBURG — On a bitterly cold Saturday morning, Edinburg High players and coaches arrived one by one on an otherwise empty campus to get back to work.
The Bobcats, who two days earlier had beaten Los Fresnos for their fourth bi-district round victory in the state playoffs in as many years, each got their temperatures checked and handed hand sanitizer before hitting the hardwood.
The echo of basketballs bouncing off the gym floor was quickly washed out, though, by a different sound that signaled the start of another practice at Edinburg High: “Bad Boy for Life” booming throughout the building.
The hit 2001 P. Diddy single has become the team’s unofficial anthem during a turbulent season for the Bobcats, who believe nothing can stop them on or off the court from keeping the winning tradition alive at one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most successful programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We always have that mentality that comes from our coaches and your teammates and players who have been here before you,” said senior guard A’nnika Saenz, a UTRGV signee. “When we play ‘Bad Boys for Life’ at the beginning of our warmups, that’s the kind of mentality we’ve had since our freshman year.”
“With COVID and everything, it feels different. It feels more deserved,” said senior guard Daysha Tijerina, the team’s leading scorer at 15.2 per game. “We worked harder this year because we had to and not everybody makes it to the second round of the playoffs. We all had to make sacrifices.”
During a season riddled with uncertainty and inconsistencies, Edinburg High’s dominance in the RGV has been one of the few constants that have remained.
The Bobcats (20-4, 15-1), who were uncertain if they would be able to play basketball at all during the 2020-21 season, have been consistently elite on the court despite numerous obstacles that threatened to derail their season.
“This whole season has felt semi-normal for us, coming in at 5:30 every morning and putting in work and being ready for game day,” Saenz said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from our players and our coaches. Everybody has done very, very well with following COVID policies and procedures.”
When teams across the state were barred from participating in tournaments due to COVID-19 safety measures, Edinburg High adjusted.
The team scheduled one of the most rigorous non-district schedules of any RGV squad with all of those opponents clinching postseason berths.
The Bobcats faced a second significant hurdle about a month into the season, when they were confronted with their first of two program-wide quarantines.
Edinburg High played just three games from mid-December to mid-January sandwiched between those stoppages, which set up a chaotic sprint to the regular-season finale that featured nine games in 18 days.
“We have a lot of grit,” freshman guard Madison Martinez said. “We work hard every day. We have our ‘Bad Boys for Life’ mentality and we’ve kept that mentality (throughout everything).”
Nevertheless, the Bobcats bullied their opponents during that stretch en route to a 16-game winning streak and unbeaten months of December and January.
In the process, the team captured the District 31-6A championship, the program’s fifth consecutive district title and sixth in the last nine years.
“Every time we play another team, no matter what team they are, everybody is going to bring their best against us because we’re Edinburg,” Saenz said. “It’s just the territory that comes with being a champion and having that mentality.”
It’s a run of basketball brilliance that’s spanned nearly a decade since head coach John David Salinas and assistant George Olvera, a former professional basketball player in Mexico, arrived at Edinburg High in 2012.
The Bobcats have tallied a 240-86 record during their tenure when excellence has become the expectation.
“They’re very smart with basketball and not only on the court,” Tijerina said. “They push us and off the court, they build that father-daughter bond with us. I give a lot of credit to them because they’re great.”
This year’s Edinburg High squad, which may be Salinas and Olvera’s top coaching performance so far, has found a unique balance of youth and experience with no sub-varsity teams playing in Hidalgo County this season amid the pandemic.
The Bobcats are led into the postseason by a trio of decorated seniors in Saenz, Tijerina and Julissah Santa Maria, who have combined for 32.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game.
Saenz, Santa Maria and Tijerina have won district titles and playoff games in each of their four seasons at Edinburg High, carrying on the winning tradition started by their predecessors who now play in college ranks across the state.
“They’re like my big sisters,” Tijerina said. “They’re people who have already gone down that path and just have that extra advice they’re willing to give me. Not everybody gets to play at the next level, but we’re blessed that many of us have that opportunity thanks to them and our coaches.”
The senior trio is now preparing the next generation of Bobcats basketball standouts, a quartet of freshmen, to carry on that tradition.
With the help of Martinez, guard Kimora Fagan, centers Janai Coleman and Emily Carranco and one of the Valley’s deepest lineups, Edinburg High’s seniors are hoping to bring the Bobcats back to the Sweet 16 of the 6A state playoffs for the first time since 2019.
“There’s a lot of competition throughout all of us and whenever we scrimmage, it’s intense,” Martinez said. “The seniors help us out a lot, (though), and they’re good role models.”
“It’s amazing to have these new kids coming in with a crazy basketball IQ, athleticism and knack for the game. Now in the postseason, we don’t consider them freshmen anymore because they have games under their belts,” Saenz said.
“It’s amazing to have everyone on this team have that type of competitive edge. Everybody on this team has that knack to win.”