PSJA North Raiders players and coaching staff celebrate with their district championship trophy after beating Mission High in a walkoff win to clinch the outright District 31-6A title Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Pharr. (Photo Courtesy PSJA North Softball)

PHARR — PSJA North came into the 2021 campaign more motivated than most and it showed early on.

After being sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, North rattled off the Rio Grande Valley’s longest winning streak to begin the season determined to make up for lost time in a major way.

Now the Raiders (24-1-1) rumble into the postseason with more wins than any team across the RGV aiming to launch a deep run into the Class 6A state playoffs.

PSJA North begins its postseason push with Game 1 of a best-of-three series in the bi-district round at home against the San Benito Greyhounds at 7 p.m. tonight before traveling to San Benito for Game 2 at 1 p.m. Saturday with a decisive Game 3 to follow immediately afterward if necessary.

“It’s been a challenge trying to overcome the obstacle of COVID, but with the perseverance we’ve had we’ve been able to grow as a team and grown in our own character,” pitcher Ariella Saenz said. “It was tough in the beginning, but with our great coaching staff and our great teammates, we’ve been able to glue together as one. It’s been great.”

“I think without having the season we wanted last year, it motivated and pushed us to come out stronger in the beginning,” catcher Angel Lozano said. “Everyone’s really motivated and we’re all pushing each other to get better.”

Like every team throughout the RGV, the Raiders were unable to participate in early-season tournaments or travel upstate to test themselves during their non-district slate.

Unlike most other squads across the Valley, though, PSJA North ran the gauntlet through a difficult non-district schedule that featured many of the Rio Grande Valley’s top 5A and 6A clubs.

PSJA North’s Ariella Saenz (16) pitches against Edinburg North in a District 31-6A game at PSJA High School on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Raiders rolled through that part of their season unscathed and picked up marquee wins over McAllen Rowe, Mercedes and PSJA Memorial — all playoff qualifiers — among others that allowed the team to showcase its tenacity and mental toughness while integrating several newcomers and developing team chemistry during a condensed season.

“For me as a transfer over here, it was different establishing relationships with new coaches and stuff, but it’s been really great,” Saenz said. “I think adding in freshmen and adding in new girls really helped bring in energy to this program. It’s been helping us to kick off strong and start with that big (winning) streak.”

“I’m also a transfer, but with the great coaching and everything, it’s honestly been easy transitioning,” center fielder Victoria Espinoza. “At first as the new girls joined, it was a little bit challenging to get used to everyone without the usual tournaments. But other than that, since then we’ve been doing really good together and that’s all behind us.”

Saenz and Espinoza — transferred from PSJA High and Hidalgo, respectively — have proven to be valuable additions to a PSJA North squad that’s developed a reputation as one of the most complete teams in South Texas this season.

Espinoza has tallied a .413 average in her first year with the Raiders and leads the team with 35 RBIs, 17 extra-base hits and five home runs, while Saenz has posted a .439 average with 29 hits and 20 RBIs which rank second and third on the team, respectively.

Saenz has been even sharper in the circle, where she’s recorded a 10-0 record and a save during 16 appearances this season.

The Raiders’ ace enters the playoffs sporting a 1.44 ERA, .206 batting average against and 72 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings of work in front of one of the Valley’s premier defensive units.

PSJA North right fielder Luera Kristianna (14) attempts to stop a hit by Edinburg North in a District 31-6A game at PSJA High School on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“When I’m pitching, I know I have the girls there behind me,” she said. “If I mess up on a pitch, I know the outfield and infield will be there to make the play. It’s good to know that because it gives me a little bit of a security blanket.”

Every player in the Raiders’ lineup with 50 or more plate appearances this year has posted averages above .350, which has given the team considerable versatility and was a big reason for its hot start.

It took PSJA North nearly two months to drop its first and only game of the regular season, a 6-0 loss to Edinburg High at the beginning of April.

How did the Raiders respond?

They pitched four consecutive shutouts against Edinburg Economedes, La Joya Juarez-Lincoln, Mission High and PSJA High while outscoring their opposition by 57 runs during that stretch to slam the door shut on a District 31-6A championship.

“That loss just motivated us,” Espinoza said. “We picked ourselves back up and told ourselves that we were going to come back stronger. That’s exactly what we did.”

“We had that mindset of going after a district title and made sure we did what we needed to do to accomplish that goal,” Saenz said. “We weren’t going to stop until we got it and we came out with that district title.”

PSJA North now enters the playoffs as the highest-ranked team at any classification level throughout the Rio Grande Valley, claiming the No. 6 spot in the Texas Girl Coaches Association’s 6A Top 25 poll.

The Raiders have positioned themselves as an early favorite to contend for the Region IV-6A title and plan to use the experience of playing with a massive target on their backs throughout the regular season to help push them toward a spot in the state tournament.

“I feel like our goal as a team is to really push for that state title,” Lozano said. “Everyone can hit, and everyone can field. Everyone can pretty much do everything. We have a really good group of girls.”

“We definitely have to do this for our community, our parents and our friends because they’re all watching us knowing that last year we didn’t have a season or these opportunities. This year we do, so we have to play harder, and we know that,” Saenz said.

“Our goal is to make it all the way to state. We want to face the toughest competition that we can so we can grow as a team and as a program. We want to overcome whatever comes our way.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch