Redeemed Vikings aiming for more success

The expectations for this season were high from the start for the Brownsville Pace Vikings.

Pace thought a District 32-5A championship was in store last season, but it fell just short. Then, the Vikings were surprised to exit the playoffs in the first round. The disappointment stuck around and turned into motivation as Pace set out to reach big goals in the 2020-21 season.

The Vikings have checked two milestones off their list by going 14-0 in district to clinch the championship and picking up a 77-68 bi-district win over McAllen Memorial to reach Round 2. They want to keep showing what they’re made of when they battle Corpus Christi Flour Bluff at 6 p.m. today in Falfurrias in the area round.

“We called this year the redemption tour. We wanted to redeem what we felt we should’ve accomplished last year, and that was the big driving force,” Pace coach Jose Luis Ramirez said. “It is a big sense of satisfaction, but we preach not being satisfied. There’s more to do. While we’re very happy — and I’m sure there will be a time when we’re able to enjoy and reflect — right now, that’s the last thing on their mind. They want to win this next one.”

With all the obstacles and limited preparation time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramirez said trust has been one of the biggest factors in Pace’s success. He said having parents trust him enough to allow their children to play amid the pandemic is “the biggest compliment I can have from parents,” and he’s grateful for the support they’ve shown throughout the season.

The trust between coaches and players also has developed this season, leading to more open communication about game plans and situations. Ramirez said connecting with the Vikings “level to level” rather than as coach and player put the team on the same page and has made him a better coach. The Vikings have appreciated the trust their coaches show them and feel it made them more successful.

“Communication between players and coaches is always a good thing to have, and it helps us prepare for games even more,” senior captain Alex Agado said. “We tell them what we see on the court, what we think will work, and (Ramirez) tries to implement that in the game plan. It feels great (that the coaches listen to us). They’re excellent coaches, and we owe everything to them.”

The improved continuity of the squad is evident when Pace takes the court. The roster is loaded with talented individuals, but the Vikings always put the team before themselves. Senior Abraham Rincon is a good example of that. Ramirez said Rincon flies under the radar because he doesn’t score much, but credited his “nagging like a mosquito” defensive style as a game-changer.

Rincon, one of Pace’s captains, knows everyone on the team can score, and he buys into his defensive role because he understands others are more efficient scorers. He said defense is a big part of Pace’s game, and it’s something the Vikings will lean on against Flour Bluff.

“I like harassing people on the court. I like making their lives hard and stopping them from scoring, and they usually put me on one of the best scorers,” Rincon said. “This team emphasizes defense a lot because … as long as you’re playing all-out, hard-nosed defense, you’ll be pretty good. Passing the first round this year, we expected it for ourselves, and we’re expecting more in the long run. I think we can compete with anybody out there as long as we know our matchups and assignments.”

Agado agrees with the notion that Pace will give any opponent a good game. He said the Vikings are “a great all-around team,” and said every player on the roster is a weapon and contributes to the squad.

Elias Fortaneli is a player Ramirez praised for having a big impact even with limited minutes. Fortaneli suffered an injury that should keep him on the sidelines, but he wanted to play — so Ramirez gives him spurts of action. Having Fortaneli on the team, working and playing even if he shouldn’t, exemplifies the passion the Vikings have for the sport. Ramirez said his presence “has been very inspirational to the team.”

Pace’s third captain is junior guard Cristian Guajardo. A three-year starter, Ramirez said Guajardo has “well over 1,500 points” in his career, but his and the Vikings’ team-first mentality kept that from the spotlight.

Guajardo said the Vikings know they’re equipped for success. Only two returners played in the early season while the rest were busy with football, and Guajardo said that gave younger guys a chance to step up and gain varsity experience. Guajardo believes the team’s speed, shooting and pestering defense will help Pace move on to Round 3.

“We’ve been ready since coming in to make a deep run. We’re striving for more,” Guajardo said. “We feel really confident. They’re a bigger team, so we’re just going to run and gun. That’s how we play, and I think we have the team to do a lot. We’re not really worried about the other team. We’re just going to focus on ourselves. Teams need to fear us, we don’t need to be afraid of other teams.”