HARLINGEN — Harlingen High guard Sydney Portillo always knew she wanted to play college basketball, even when her smaller frame had her doubting that she could.

During her three years with the varsity squad, Portillo grew from a role player into an influential part of the undefeated District 32-6A champion and regional semifinalist Lady Cardinals. As her impact and skills evolved, so did her confidence, and the work she put in resulted in Portillo making her dream come true when she signed with Our Lady of the Lake University on Thursday.

“It means everything to me. Getting the opportunity really late and during COVID is really special for me,” Portillo said. “My mom has really pushed me, because honestly I didn’t really know if I would play in college and she kept telling me, ‘You can play.’ She was real helpful, and coach (Ashley Moncivaiz), too. She helped me throughout all the years, making me better, and all her advice was really helpful.”

Portillo made a highlight reel to upload on Hudl and send to schools, and she attended tryouts as she tried to find a place to continue her career. Her solid performance at an OLLU tryout got the recruitment process going. Portillo will be studying kinesiology and play for the Saints in the Red River Athletic Conference at the NAIA level.

“My sister goes to OLLU and I thought they had a good basketball team, and my mom called and asked if there were tryouts. I went and tried out, and just kept in contact with the coach,” Portillo said. “It was really scary because it was my first tryout and I didn’t know how it was going to go. There were a lot of really good girls, but I think I dominated speed-wise and it was an advantage.”

Portillo’s speed and defensive prowess helped her rise through the program. She scored 90 points and recorded 50 rebounds, 34 assists and 27 steals in her senior season. Moncivaiz spoke highly about Portillo’s leadership skills and said her never-back-down attitude was a big benefit for the team. Those qualities and Portillo’s work ethic have Moncivaiz confident that the small but mighty guard will do well at the college level.

“When she started to see her potential, that’s when she became more of a threat. That’s why her senior year she went out and competed very well, and did more things on offense and defense,” Moncivaiz said. “This year and in the playoffs, she was knocking down from the 3-point line, driving, rebounding. She can play anywhere for her size.

“It was the heart and willingness to do anything for the team. That’s what contributed to her success and helped her be recruited,” Moncivaiz added. “She doesn’t care about her size. She’ll go against anybody. She’s fearless when she’s out there. … I’m very happy for her and, like I told her, I want her to show them what Lady Cardinal basketball is about.”