Mission Veterans girls’ basketball coach Rafael Cantu Jr. didn’t really want to talk about his 400th career victory. It came last Friday against Corpus Christi John Paul 49-32 as part of the McAllen/Valley View Border Bash/Border Brawl basketball tournament.
Cantu Jr. seemed more interested in how his team, the Lady Patriots, had just defeated a number of good programs over the course of the three day tournament to improve the team’s record to 9-3 early in the season. Programs like Mercedes, Corpus Christi King and Arlington Seguin to name a few.
And that maybe is all you really need to know about the veteran coach of the Lady Patriots, the only coach in the school’s history. It’s not about him, it’s about the team. His (and the program’s) success has come from the emphasis on togetherness, the “we”, rather than individual glory.
I was at win #399 last week, a 64-53 win over Corpus Christi King in their first game of the tournament. The Lady Patriots were down at halftime and trailed by double-digits for much of the second half before rallying to tie it, and then win it in overtime. The big comeback didn’t just happen.
“Coach Cantu told us (at halftime) that the only way we were going to get past this game and come out with the win was to play together”, said Lady Patriots senior point guard (and Coach Cantu’s daughter) Ronnie Cantu.
Another senior, Janessa De La Garza says coach Cantu is always talking about team. “Coach Cantu says we practice as a team, we win as a team. Everyone contributes to our wins, it’s not just one person; it’s the whole team.”
Coach Cantu talked about the “I am because we are” phrase that he has used during his time coaching at various schools over the past twenty-seven years.
“Individual success only comes from playing together,” said Cantu. “Individual success is due to the team. The only way to be successful is to play together. When they do that we do well. (Having the girls) play their part and do their part, playing their role and fulfilling it the best they can that’s what we are trying to do.”
Cantu, a Mission High graduate, is just one of a number of Eagles alumni who played for Coach Roy Garcia while in high school and went on to coach the game too. His desire to become a coach came well before high school, however.
“Ever since I can remember I was doing something with sports. It all started with my Dad when he was a junior high principal. We lived a block away from the stadium and I remember those Fridays, getting home from school and pretty soon you could hear the band playing and then smell the popcorn. My parents would take me to the games and it all started there.”
What followed was a successful career on the court for the Eagles and what has been a similar record of success on the sidelines. Cantu Jr. started his coaching career with stops in Sharyland and Edinburg before securing his first head coaching job in Hidalgo. His first team at Hidalgo went 25-6 and he spent one more year there before coming back to Mission when Veterans Memorial opened in 2002. After two years to get the program up and running the Lady Patriots made it to the playoffs for the first time in 2005 and have been there every year but one since.
And while the wins have come on a consistent basis, the game has changed since Cantu played.
“You have to be able to score points and play defense,” said Cantu. “You have to be able to do both. In high school (as a player) we were extremely defensive oriented. It’s more of an open game now where kids are so good it seems the offense always has the advantage. You have to be able to score but also be able to stop them when you need to.”
The game against King was a case in point. The Lady Patriots had to score to get back into the game but also needed stops on the defensive end to make any kind of dent in the deficit. It also helped to have Cantu on the sideline, refusing to lose an early non-district game when it could have been just as easy to let his starters rest up for the remaining games of a long three day tournament.
Leilah De Leon, another senior on the team, commented on that Cantu, the one whose competitive spirit has also contributed to those 400 wins. “(He says) that he believes in us, that we can do a lot of things because we are a great team. He thinks we are really talented but he is always there to push us to do our best.”
Senior Kaylee Flores added one more favorite saying of her coach, one in which only the next few months will ultimately determine. “Championships are won when the bleachers are empty,” she said.
Those bleachers were not totally empty last week in that game against King but with the way they dug in and fought back it is possible that the beginnings of a championship team were forged anyway.
This article originally appeared in the Friday Nov. 29, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.