BY John Bourg
I’m sure our “Over the Hill” Cardinals’ lunch group and my former teammates enjoyed the ‘Scene from THE PAST’ photo of our long ago basketball champions, but in the spirit of fairness I wanted to tone down the “chest thumping” with three points.
1. Three Cardinals teams played in the state tournament before we did.
2. Four other Valley high schools qualified for the state tournament after Harlingen’s last appearance.
3. Valley schools in 5A and 6A today face a much more challenging “road to state” than we did.
Earlier Cardinals Teams Harlingen was in the state basketball tournament “Final 8” in 1948, 1950, and 1951 under legendary coach Weldon “Stony” Phillips.
The 1947 basketball team with football great Lew Levine (UT starting halfback two seasons) was 28-1 before losing in bi-district to state finalist San Antonio Jefferson.
The 1948 Cardinals had what we St. Anthony students considered two “giants,” 6-4 Bill Harris and 6-2 Richard Bentley. The Cardinals were 20-4 and undefeated in district play before upsetting Jefferson in bi-district. Harlingen lost its only state tournament game to Houston Milby by 11 points.
The 1949 Cardinals (17-5) won district for the third year in a row, but lost to Austin High in bi-district. All-District Rudy Gonzales was the ‘shooting guard’ and my older brother Jim was the ‘passing guard’.
The 1950 and 1951 Cardinals, led by All-District players Tommy Presley and Barney Aaron, beat Laredo in bi-district to advance to Austin. The 1950 Cardinals lost to Austin of El Paso 61-23, the largest loss in state tournament history, while the 1951 Cardinals lost by 11 to state champion Lubbock.
Other Valley Tourney Teams Four other Valley high schools have played in the state tournament since Harlingen’s last appearance.
Santa Rosa has sent four teams to ‘state’, tying Harlingen for the Valley record. The Class B 1961 Warriors lost to Frankston 69-35, and the 1962 Warriors lost to Snook 64-51. Juan Cipriano’s Santa Rosa teams lost to 2A state champion Ponder 77-54 in 2009 and to 3A state champion Dallas Madison 82-54 in 2017.
Donna lost to 2A state champion Buna 59-48 in 1962. Leading scorer 6-4 Jim Hulme was a star center on the Valley’s only football state champions.
Mission lost to Dimmitt 60-50 in 1978. Jaime Pena, at 6-7 arguably the best Valley basketball player ever, was a junior college All-American who played two years at New Mexico State.
Edinburg Vela, coached by Lalo Rios, entered the 2016 state tournament with a gaudy 35-2 record after upsetting Victoria East, Alamo Heights, and Laredo Nixon in the 5A playoffs. The scrappy SaberCats lost to state champion Lancaster 79-58 because they could not defend a 6-10 center and two 6-6 forwards. (Who could?) More Difficult ‘Road to State’ All of us who played for outstanding coach Eldon Long are proud of our 1956 Cardinals (30-3 including 22 in a row) and our 27-5 team the year before that lost a bi-district game in the last five seconds to 3A state champion Victoria 62-61. It’s only fair, however, to point out two reasons why it is much more difficult for today’s 5A and 6A Valley teams to reach the “Final 4.”
First, there are about four times as many teams in the two largest classes of schools. In 1956 there were only eight 3A & 4A districts versus 32 5A & 6A districts today.
Valley 5A & 6A teams have to beat five teams in the playoffs to reach the “Final 4” while we needed to beat only one in bi-district.
Ironically, segregation also was key to our success. Before the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in ‘Brown vs Board of Education,’ Texas cities and towns had separate, hardly equal, ‘black high schools’ whose athletic teams did not play the “white high schools.”
When the ‘black high schools’ joined the UIL in 1968 it became crystal clear that the best all-black basketball teams were far supe- rior to the best allwhite teams.
Once eligible, Houston Wheatley won three 4A state titles in a row while Wheatley and Houston Kashmere won eight 4A titles the first 13 years they were eligible.
The white coach who had said the black coaches and players needed help to be competitive must have felt quite foolish at that point.
Now you know the rest of the story. In the further spirit of “true confessions,” I admit that rather than a great memory I have state tournament scrapbooks from 1946 to 2017 to complement my memory of the 21 state tournaments I have attended in the past 22 years.
Fellow ex-Cardinals David “Dink” Rozzell and Ken Weber and I hope to watch another Valley team in the Alamodome in the next few years and would be ecstatic to see a Valley basketball team win a state championship. We can hope, can’t we?
Valley 5A and 6A basketball playoff teams should adopt as their motto the poignant final public words of cancer-stricken, former coach Jimmy V Valvano, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” (Do yourself a favor and Google his 11 minute, inspiring speech.) As the brilliant philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Cardinal spirit never dies.
John Bourg is a graduate of HHS, Class of ‘56 and Rice Class of ’61.