Harlingen High boasts the highest-scoring offense in District 32-6A, but its pitching staff — led by seniors John Ortega and Abel Flores, and sophomore Jacob Marroquin — have anchored the Cardinals as they find themselves on the verge of a district title.
The bond this year’s senior class has formed stems from as far back as Little League, when Ortega and Flores were T-ball teammates at Victor Park.
Harlingen High coach Armando Rangel said Ortega’s humility is what makes the dynamic between Ortega, Flores, Marroquin and the rest of his teammates work.
“We can put (Ortega) all over the place,” Rangel said. “He can play third, shortstop, outfield, first. With no complaints, too. He’s a great asset for us.”
Ortega’s value also lies in his coachability and willingness to work with Flores and Marroquin to improve the pitching staff as a group. He’s not above taking advice from underclassmen.
“Honestly, you’ll be surprised with what some of these freshman or sophomores will tell you,” Ortega said. “Sometimes they’ll see stuff that you think you have down, and you really don’t.”
When his teammates and coaches helped him realize he needed to improve the precision of his stride so his front foot was pointed directly toward home plate, Ortega continued to seek the help of his fellow pitchers and worked diligently to fix his mechanics. If a pitcher’s front foot lands an inch or two to the left or right of his target, it can affect a pitcher’s arm angle and the resulting location of the pitch.
The breakthrough for Ortega came during the first inning of a game March 22 at Rivera, a 6-2 win in which the Cardinals ace allowed just four hits.
“They were just trying to remind me to get that muscle memory in my head,” Ortega said. “During the game, the coaches and teammates were on me about it.”
Marroquin said extra bullpen work with his coaches helped him lower his shoulder, tweaking his arm angle to help him better hit his spot.
It’s no surprise that Flores and Marroquin have seen their skills continue to develop because of their trust and confidence in their staff ace. Rangel said this is because the senior class has bought in to the culture of the program and every player has a role in contributing to the team’s success. He noted that Flores in particular has stepped up as a leader, improving as a hitter as well toward the end of the season.
While Marroquin’s complete game shutout in a 5-0 win against Harlingen South last Thursday could be one of the turning points this season, another game stands out as pivotal in his mind — a come-from-behind 9-7 win over Los Fresnos on March 14.
“That’s going to end up being a very important game,” Marroquin said. “We swept the district champs right there. That’s going to be a game to remember for all of us.”
Flores said that any lowered expectations about Harlingen High heading into this season only fueled the Cardinals.
“We’re not even in the playoffs yet,” Flores said. “But this is my favorite team by far.”