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If there is any quit in Rene Garza, it isn’t easy to see.
Sixteen seasons coaching at Mission and 28 years overall, the Mission High School icon announced recently he is stepping down to focus on his health. The longtime coach was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2006 and the long battle against cancer has taken its toll.
“Very difficult decision to make,” said Garza in one-on-one interview with the Progress Times. “It’s time. It is very hard and very difficult for me.”
While it is Garza’s health that is forcing him to step down, it is the idea of giving up his passion for the game that is the most difficult.
“I am going to miss it,” Garza said with a tear in his eye. “I had sixteen wonderful, great and exciting years. Just amazing years. Incredible. It has been a joy and experience just to be the head basketball coach. A privilege and honor. I am the lucky one.”
Garza’s passion for the game may adequately be explained by the speech he gave while being inducted into the Texas Girls Coaches Association Hall of Fame two years ago. Garza, who is the only coach from the RGV to be inducted to the statewide Hall of Fame, said of the game of basketball: “I love basketball. I love being with my players. I love being with the other coaches. I love practices. I love the smell of the gym. I love game day. I love everything about basketball. Basketball is something that helped me become the person I am today.”
That love started while he was a youngster watching the older kids at the local rec play. That love continued as he watched professional players such as Walt Frazier and the New York Knicks, and it evolved into a coaching career that has spanned 28 years.
In that time, it is his 16 years with the Lady Eagles that has defined him as he helped the program win one district championship, three seasons as district runner-ups, 10 postseason appearances and an overall record of 287-200 at Mission and 518-298 overall.
Asked if there were certain teams or players that have a special spot in his basketball memories, Garza said he looks at all his teams as equal, whether one won the district championship – as did his 1996-97 team in his first year at Mission – or did not make the postseason at all.
“They were all good teams as far as I am concerned. They did everything I asked of them. I could talk about individual players, but someone had to rebound for them, somebody had to give them a [screen] and someone had to play defense. If one person made all-district, everyone made all-district.”
Perhaps it was that kind of loyalty and passion for the game of basketball and to his players that caused many of them to return and give thanks to their former coach at this year’s team banquet. The surprise visit of a countless number of former players, brought tears to the eyes of Garza as his final basketball banquet featured his loyal players of today with his former players now-turned-women of yesterday giving honor to a coach who influenced their lives on and off the court.
And that may be the key to Garza’s legacy. In truth, the coach wasn’t – and there aren’t many who are – John Wooden on the court. His teams didn’t dominate year after year after year. Yet the retiring coach saw basketball the way the UCLA legend saw it: as a metaphor for life.
“I tried to teach [my players] about becoming a complete person. About being a good human being. In basketball, you are going to have situations where you don’t win all the games, but you got to get up the next morning and come to practice, stay positive and work harder so the next time hopefully you will get a win.
“That is part of life. Finding the avenue to give you the opportunities to give you that success you need. We prepare ourselves for a game, [but] I am hoping that through basketball we are preparing for life and the lessons of life. We are learning about integrity. We are learning about being trustworthy. We are learning about being resourceful. We are learning about the positive attitude and never to quit.”
No doubt those John Wooden-like teachings have had an influence on the former players such as Melissa Gandaria, Lori Detmer, Sonya Reyna and Dalia Camargo, just to name a few athletes who succeeded on the court and also took in the lessons. Another such former player no doubt affected is Nelly Treviño, now an assistant coach for the Sharyland girls and a lead candidate to replace her former mentor at Mission.
Though Garza does not like to look back into the past to pick out special teams or players, the coach concedes this final season was something special.
Knowing that he was about to retire and midway through this year’s district season, Garza and Assistant Head Coach Lucy Guerra met together and Garza confided to his long-time assistant that he really wanted to finish his final season strong with at least 20 wins and a playoff berth.
Such a task would not be easy. From Jan. 6 to Jan. 13, the Lady Eagles lost four straight after starting district 3-1. One of those defeats was to La Joya, giving the Lady Coyotes their third straight win and the edge in the district standings.
But Garza and his team were not finished. Just as Garza had preached countless times in the past for his team to stay positive and to keep focused, the Lady Eagles rose up and figured out a way to win six of their final seven games, including a dramatic play-in victory over La Joya.
A deeply religious man, Garza took the dramatic ride as a sign from God.
“I took it as a sign that I was making the right choice. He gave me the answer I needed to hear that I was making the right decision [to retire].”
Immediately following the dramatic victory over the Lady Coyotes that saw Garza’s team come back after being down at halftime, throngs of reporters, fellow coaches and Mission High supporters surrounded the coach to ask him questions and congratulate him.
While many of these admirers saw a resounding and dramatic turn around, what they did not see was how fast Garza’s health was declining.
Since being diagnosed five years ago, Garza was able to continue to coach, only missing a game or two as he had treatments and worked to fight the cancer, using his positive attitude and his faith in God to persevere. Yet, coming into this last season, Garza’s doctors told him that his body would begin to struggle to keep up and that retirement should be heavily considered.
Garza concurred and indeed his health waned. The long-time coach found himself sitting in his chair more than usual, even struggling to walk without assistance from the bench to the locker room. Though he hid it well, another season wouldn’t be possible.
Despite the end of his career as head coach, Garza isn’t planning on leaving the game. The coach plans to continue being a fan. That includes seeing as many Lady Eagles games as he can and even catching a Spurs game or two.
Most importantly, despite being 60 years old and fighting a life-threatening cancer, Garza doesn’t plan on quitting.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.