SANTA MARIA — There aren’t many basketball programs in the Rio Grande Valley that can say they’ve reached the Sweet 16, but the Santa Maria Cougars have done it twice.
Albert Briones was at the helm for both regional tournaments, and his efforts that led to a return trip this season have earned him the Valley Morning Star’s 2019-2020 All-STAR Boys Basketball Coach of the Year title.
“I love all this recognition for the kids, myself, the community and our program, but I just thank God we have the opportunity to develop young men. At the end of the day, yeah, it’s great that we won games and we got these awards, but the more important thing is that throughout the process (my players) turn in to responsible young men,” Briones said.
Getting his players ready for life after basketball is at the forefront of Briones’ mission as a coach. He makes the regular season schedule as challenging as possible, not putting too much emphasis on wins and losses but focusing on skill development and mental toughness. His system requires that the players work together, be punctual and organized, and complete their assignments, both on the court and in the classroom.
“Even though we love basketball, they do know that this is just an avenue to learn a lot of good qualities for life,” Briones said. “I’m just here to make them better. I want the kids to come back in five years and tell me they’re doing something with their life.”
Going back home is what Briones did when he took the job in 2010. He’s a Cougars alumnus and played on the first varsity teams in basketball and football while in high school. Santa Maria superintendent Martin Cuellar was Briones’ algebra teacher during the early 1990s and lured him from Weslaco High, where he was an assistant, when the position became available.
This year, Briones added to his workload by serving as both the boys and girls basketball coach. It wasn’t easy, but the second title gave him a front row seat to watch his daughter, Clara, play on the varsity squad. Briones credited Cuellar’s support as a reason he was able to power through the double duty.
“Our girls program has had five different coaches in five years … it was a big challenge, but I knew a lot of the kids so it was a smooth transition,” Briones said. “My daughter’s on the team and I was able to see her more this year than in her freshman and sophomore year combined, so that was a great feeling.
“(Cuellar,) I thank him a lot. He never said no to anything we needed all year, and it makes things easier when you have that support. Knowing you’ve got people backing you up and they’ll let you work gives you more freedom to be more creative and to attack your job,” he added.
Briones is already looking ahead to another playoff run next season, but with UIL realignment significantly changing District 32-2A and the loss of six seniors — including four starters — he knows that won’t be an easy task.
That won’t stop the Cougars from aiming to get their first regional semifinal win. As Briones pushes his players toward that goal, he’ll continue pushing them to become the best versions of themselves.
“The game isn’t forever. I tell the kids just make your parents proud, or your uncles or aunts or abuelos, whoever loves you. Just make sure you make them proud, and in that process you’re going to make yourself proud because you’re doing something good,” Briones said.