By KEVIN NARRO | Staff Writer
Senior right handed pitcher Erika Cortez will go down as one of the best pitchers in Rio Hondo despite her limited time in a Lady Bobcats uniform. The hard-throwing righty overcame a turbulent past and helped fill in the missing piece for the Lady Bobcats.
With a dominant 1.78 ERA, 178 strikeouts in 110 innings and an 11-3 record, Cortez has been named the Valley Morning Star’s 2019 ALL-STAR Softball Pitcher of the Year. She was joined on the All-STAR team superlatives list by Lady Bobcats coach Brett Esparza (coach of the year) and sophomore Domo De Jesus (defensive player of the year).
“Winning pitcher of the year means a lot to me,” Cortez said. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard I work and how hard I have pushed myself, and after all those ice baths after games. It didn’t matter what time I got home, I made sure to take an ice bath. This all helped me realize that my work is paying off and people can see it.”
Cortez, who is originally from Rio Hondo, began her high school career at San Benito. After her freshman year, she transferred to Edinburg High, where she played on the junior varsity her sophomore year and then the varsity her junior year.
Cortez arrived in Rio Hondo in mid-February after transferring from Edinburg High. Cortez later made her official debut March 5 at rival Zapata. The senior got right to work with a complete game, yielding nine hits and surrendering four runs (two earned), walking one and striking out 16.
Her debut foreshadowed what was to come for Cortez and the Lady ’Cats in 2019. She was instrumental in the dugout and on the field and eventually helped Rio Hondo to a sixth straight district title and a trip to the Sweet 16.
When Cortez arrived in Rio Hondo, it got the attention of the younger girls on the team. Cortez quickly became a voice in the dugout and eventually took the circle.
“Honestly I didn’t realize I made such a big impact on the girls,” Cortez said. “They would just ask me for helping with anything. I would just stop and help break it down for them. I didn’t expect moving back here and my family and I made a choice, and I ended up here and I really enjoyed myself here in Rio Hondo. When I would go home, my mom would remind me that me coming back to Rio Hondo was God’s plan and my coach would tell me it was my destiny to come back.”
Heading into the 2019 season, Rio Hondo had some pieces it needed to fill. Among those positions was center field and middle infield spots. With the lineup being shuffled, Esparza looked to sophomore Domo De Jesus.
De Jesus played the middle infield, spent time in the circle was asked to take the center field position. While it took a few weeks for De Jesus to get used to the new position, she thrived and anchored the Rio Hondo outfield.
De Jesus became a utility weapon for Rio Hondo, playing four different positions and not committing an error, finishing with a fielding percentage of 1.000 and recording 35 outs.
With her versatility, De Jesus was named the Valley Morning Star’s 2019 All-STAR Softball Defensive Player of the Year.
“Coach Esparza called me over the phone and told me the news,” De Jesus said. “I was surprised when I got the news. I wasn’t expecting it, but I was happy I got it. My aunt was the first person I told, and it was great knowing my family supports me.”
Making the move from the middle infield to the outfield wasn’t as difficult as De Jesus had imagined. She made her center field debut against Zapata, and the next game against Raymondville, De Jesus felt confident in her ability to play the position.
“I dove for a ball and missed it, but I knew if I were to dive again, I would get it,” De Jesus said. “That field in Raymondville is one of the bigger outfields we play on, and I knew if I could cover the ground here I would be able to do it anywhere.”
In his ninth year at the helm, Rio Hondo reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years. While the 2017 club reached the regional final and just had a special feel to it, the 2019 team rekindled that magic.
Esparza had the talent, it was a matter of putting the pieces in play. Rio Hondo won its sixth straight district title with a 13-1 record and finished with a 27-12-1 overall mark. Along with the district title came bi-district, area and regional quarterfinal titles.
Rio Hondo again proved to be one of the top programs in the Rio Grande Valley and was one of three teams remaining in the playoffs. Esparza was named the Valley Morning Star 2019 All-STAR Softball Coach of the Year.
“To win this award in this area means a lot,” Esparza said. “For me, personally, I feel this area is the best area for high school softball and almost in the state. When you take the Harlingens, the San Benitos, Lyfords and Los Fresnos, all those teams play quality softball, and for us to win this award means a lot to my staff and I.”
Esparza’s coaching staff is a unique one and filled with coaching experience. His wife, Lizzette Esparza, this season joined the coaching staff, which includes longtime coach Debbie Esparza.
In the Lady Bobcats’ final win of the 2019 season against Fredricksburg in the Sweet 16, Esparza picked up career win 205.