Battle-tested Hawks ready for playoffs

HARLINGEN — The 2020-21 season has been a roller-coaster for the Harlingen South Hawks.

They started the season 6-0 and rolled through their non-district slate, going 11-1 against competitive playoff teams. Then, they were hit with a string of challenges.

Harlingen South’s top player and senior captain, Alex Rodriguez, went down for an extended time with an injury. Then COVID-19 struck and forced the team into quarantine two games into a tough District 32-6A schedule. The Hawks came back and battled game after game to clinch a playoff berth with a 17-7, 6-6 record.

The lessons South learned through all the adversity have the Hawks prepared to take on the La Joya High Coyotes in today’s bi-district contest, set to tipoff at 3 p.m. in La Joya. South is looking at the postseason as a fresh start and a new chance to show what it can do.

“There’s been a lot of obstacles we’ve had to overcome,” South coach Brian Molina said. “I think we’re finally back to being the old Hawks, the ones that started off the season, and I think through all this adversity … is when our character is checked, and these guys have responded really well.

“I know they’re looking forward to playing the district champion and they know that everybody’s 0-0, and now it’s about survive and advance,” he added. “We feel confident. We’ve beaten a lot of district champions that are out there playing. We put together a schedule that definitely got us battle tested, and we’re ready for the challenge.”

Molina said the multitude of experience South returned this season has been a big advantage. A key part of that is Rodriguez, the 2019-20 All-STAR and District 32-6A defensive player of the year. Rodriguez returned from injury to start in South’s senior night finale against Harlingen High, and as he continues to get back into basketball shape he’s ready to help his team get a bi-district win.

Rodriguez and Molina credited a number of Hawks for stepping in to fill Rodriguez’s role while he was sidelined. Ryan Fechner (14.1 points per game), Drake Everett (7.2 rebounds per game), Rudy Rodriguez (10.2 PPG), Ddeen Badiru and Steven Ortegon are some top producers that kept South competitive through the ups and downs of the season. Jeremiah Rivera and Devin Montemayor joined late from football and have been key contributors.

Rodriguez praised all of his teammates for answering the call and said the squad’s chemistry is a big factor in South’s success.

“Watching the guys, they did awesome without me. Everyone stepped up and did their job, from our freshmen and up,” Rodriguez said. “This team is definitely a team-first group. There’s not one person on this team that wants to score all the points or all that. We’re all playing for each other, no one’s playing for themselves. We’ve all grown up working hard together, and I think that’s pushed us a long way.”

Through all the obstacles, Molina and Rodriguez both said senior point guard Noah Rios was the leader that kept the Hawks going. Molina called Rios the unsung hero and someone who doesn’t get or want credit for being “the glue that keeps the team together.”

“He doesn’t lead the team in scoring, but he definitely controls the tempo of the game. A lot of our success is because of Noah,” Molina said. “He’s a blessing to have because it’s like having another coach on the court. He’s one of the best ball defenders I’ve coached here in the last 15 years. He just sits in the background, doesn’t want the limelight, doesn’t care who gets it, he’s just all about the win.”

Rios averages 5.3 points, 5.1 assists and 3.1 steals per game. He said the Hawks feel good about how they match up with La Joya High and the teams the Coyotes have played. He believes the team developed a culture of resilience that will help them take on this next obstacle.

“It’s an honor to lead a great group of guys. Every one of these guys plays their hearts out every single night, so I give all the credit to them,” Rios said. “We’re feeling great. We’re going in there with some confidence, knowing we’re going to do some great things. We know that all the adversity made us better and stronger as a team.”

The maturity the Hawks developed through the season is something Molina believes will help them pick up a bi-district win. Six of South’s losses and 10 of its games were decided by six points or less, and Molina said those tests prepared the Hawks for the next phase of the season.

“It’s just another test, and I think they’re ready to answer the call,” Molina said. “If we defend we’re going to have a chance. Easier said than done because La Joya is very well-coached, they put up a lot of points and are an experienced ballclub. It’s almost like playing a replica of ourselves. It’s the playoffs, so the team that executes the best is usually the one that wins, so that’s what we’re focusing on.”