Going into last season Romeo De La Garza Jr., head coach of the Veterans Memorial Patriots boys basketball team, knew he did not have the experience on his roster to have the kind of season Patriots basketball teams are accustomed to having. He only had two returning players from the year before and only one had actual playing experience. As a result, the Patriots missed out on the playoffs for only the fourth time in De La Garza’s 14-year tenure at Veterans Memorial High School.
“Last year we had a lot of young players come in that were asked to take up the load of being big time contributors,” De La Garza said. “We got off to a great start and were doing well but we had a couple of injuries right before district play, so it took us a while to get going. We were very competitive, but we did not win the games we’re used to winning in district play. We were always in a position to win games, but we just didn’t finish them like we have in the past.”
While the 2016-2017 Patriots are not dwelling on last year’s disappointing results, De La Garza does see those results as a motivational tool this year.
“These young men have a bitter taste in their mouths and they don’t want what happened last year to happen again,” said De La Garza. “We’re accustomed to being in the state playoffs. So, even though we finished with a winning record, we take a lot of pride in making the playoffs and in being in a position to win the district title… But the guys have worked hard this off-season and I’ve been pleased with that but as I tell them, we’re doing some good things but we’re a long way off from where we want to be as a team and they’re looking forward to the challenge.”
One of the players De La Garza will be counting on to help lead the Patriots back to the playoffs this year is last year’s District 31-5A Newcomer of the Year, Derrick De Leon. Despite it being his first year on the varsity squad, De Leon took on the responsibility of being a team leader last year.
When asked if his team is ready for district play starting next week, De Leon said, “As the season has progressed, we have been plagued with injuries. But I believe that we are putting the pieces together in practice and that we’re orchestrating quite well. So, by the time we get to district play, we’ll be 100% ready and we’ll get it done.”
As a senior this year De Leon said, “I’m looking forward to bonding with my teammates and making long-lasting friendships. I’m looking forward to 20 years from now looking back and saying, ‘These were my teammates and I’m proud of them having been my teammates.’”
Following the UIL’s most recent realignment, District 31-5A has grown from a seven team district to nine. That not only means that there will now be two additional teams vying for the same four playoff spots, but it also means that the Patriots, along with their district opponents, will have four additional games added to their district schedule.
When asked how that will affect him and his teammates, senior Patriots’ outside point guard Alex Rodriguez said, “It’s going to be good. Every additional game we play will just be another bonding experience for us and an additional opportunity to create team chemistry. We’re excited about getting to play the Laredo schools because they’re new competition for us.”
The Patriots will be opening district play Tuesday, Dec. 13 at home against Laredo Cigarroa. They will then be traveling to Sharyland Pioneer High School to play the Diamondbacks Friday, Dec. 16. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m.