WESLACO — For the first time since 2017, the Weslaco High Panthers are headed to the regional quarterfinals of the Class 6A state playoffs on the softball diamond.
Weslaco High (19-4) surges into its first Round 3 postseason appearance in four years behind the strength of one of the Rio Grande Valley’s top pitching duos and the hottest set of bats across South Texas in recent weeks.
The team is set to face a familiar foe in District 32-6A rival Los Fresnos (20-3), as the RGV’s last two teams standing in 6A prepare to duel for a coveted trip to the Sweet 16 and the chance to continue their quest for the Region IV-6A championship.
The Panthers and Falcons will kick off their best-of-three regional quarterfinal series, the third meeting between the two squads this season, in Game 1 at 7 p.m. Thursday in Los Fresnos, before shifting to Weslaco for Game 2 at the same time Friday night.
If necessary, a winner-take-all Game 3 begins at 4 p.m. Saturday in Los Fresnos.
“We have a lot of goals set up for this year. We want to go as far as we can and we’re not going to go down easy. If we do go down, we’re going to do it giving it our last ounce of energy,” junior catcher Jules Garcia said.
“We know what we want and we’re just going to keep pushing and working for it. As long as we keep working hard and playing with the heart we have for the game of softball, we’re going to keep going far.”
“It feels really good,” junior utility player Stacie Bautista said. “We’ve had a lot of doubters in the Valley and we just have to prove we’re one of the better teams here in the Valley. No one can bring us down. We just need to keep up that winning streak we have right now and keep going.”
Weslaco charges into Round 3 riding the longest active winning streak throughout the Rio Grande Valley, after having defeated its last six opponents dating back to mid-April.
A major reason for the Panthers’ recent on-field success has been the unparalleled energy they’ve brought to the ballpark through their use of dugout props, cheers and engaging the crowd to hype up their supporters.
“The energy is definitely one of the biggest factors in our success,” junior pitcher and shortstop Katia Reyes said. “We don’t let the energy die down. When the other team brings a lot of energy, we know we have to bring more. … I have a really big wig I like to wear (when we celebrate), but I definitely like the mascot heads too.”
“I’d have to say all the unicorns and stuff,” Garcia said. “It definitely gives a little spice to our team with everyone going crazy and getting loud. It just pumps us all up and we like to have fun out there.”
The squad’s prop that’s been appearing with increasing regularity, however, is the home-run hammer, which the Panthers bring out onto the field to pound home plate after each long ball they smack out of the park.
Weslaco has hammered more than a handful, combining for 17 home runs as a team and 22 extra-base knocks during its current six-game winning streak.
The Panthers’ bats have caught fire during the last month of the season and have powered the group to an unbeaten run through the first two rounds of the postseason after averaging 13 hits during its last four playoff games.
“We found a lineup that’s very solid and one that’s been working for us,” Reyes said. “It’s definitely one of the main factors in winning. The only way to win is to score, so when Lilly (Torres) gets on base we know we have girls that can move her over, hit, bunt and run.”
Bautista, Garcia and Reyes have powered Weslaco into the regional quarterfinals at the plate as the team’s three leading batters.
Garcia has led the way for the Panthers, clobbering the ball to team-highs in batting average (.486) and RBIs (31), while tying Reyes for the team lead in home runs with four apiece.
Bautista, meanwhile, has garnered a reputation as one of the RGV’s most clutch hitters frequently providing the team a spark in spot starts or entering the game as a pinch hitter.
Her .422 average and .519 on-base percentage rank second among all Panthers players and her 11 extra-base hits are tied for third in Weslaco’s versatile and deep lineup.
“We can just turn to anyone in the dugout and they will help us out. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting down or in the lineup, we all have our bats ready and we’re always ready to play,” Bautista said. “I feel like our bats have come through when they’ve needed to come through.”
“Everyone has had their opportunity to come into the game and whether they start or not, they come in clutch. Like Stacie, when they put her in, she gets a base hit and delivers that timely hitting,” Garcia said. “Whether it’s to cheer someone on or to get a base hit, get someone on or move someone over, everyone knows their role and everyone has a role.”
Now, the Panthers prepare for the most high-stakes rematch of the RGV’s softball season against district rival Los Fresnos.
The Falcons took the two meetings between the teams in district play by a combined score of 6-4 in two of the closest contests for either side this year.
That has motivated Weslaco more than ever to pounce on its familiar 32-6A foe early and prove it has what it takes to become the first Panthers’ squad to advance to the state tournament since 2016.
“Both of our teams have really good pitchers, offenses and defenses. It can go either way, but it’s going to come down to whoever wants it more and whoever comes together as a team and stays together as a team,” Bautista said. “We want to make new history and not rely on 2016 or 2017. We want to make our own history as a team, as the 2021 Panthers.”
“We’ve been in this situation before, so we know what to expect and we won’t be surprised. It’s just a matter of putting everything together. Right now we’re at a peak in our season where all the bats are coming in and we’re making all the right plays,” Garcia said.
“We have yet to play our best game of softball. … They’re not going to beat us four times. We’ve worked way too hard to let it go right here against a Valley team, so we’re going to pull through, keep working hard and doing what we do best.”