HARLINGEN — Anywhere Rio Hondo senior Jabez Villarreal could put up shots growing up, he would — whether it was at the Rio Hondo Baptist Church gymnasium near his home or an outdoor court like Harlingen’s Pendleton Park.
“I put in so much work since Day 1 before high school to get to this level that I’m at right now,” Villarreal said. “It wasn’t easy to have the work ethic to want to be working hard at a sport that you love. It took a lot of hard work and blood, sweat and tears to get to where I am right now.”
In 30 games, Villarreal averaged 18.1 points per game, a mark that was good for 10th among all players in Class 4A of the University Interscholastic League. He also tallied 78 assists, good for second-best on this year’s Bobcats squad.
For his part in helping guide Rio Hondo back to the playoffs following a six-year drought, he is the Valley Morning Star’s 2019-20 All-STAR Offensive Player of the Year.
Villarreal scored 28 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists in a marquee 51-50 non-district victory over San Benito on Dec. 6, 2019.
He registered 11 double-doubles, recording a season-high in both points and rebounds — 35 and 16, respectively — in a blowout win over La Joya Juarez-Lincoln on Dec. 14, 2019.
In what many around Rio Hondo described as the most consequential game of the District 32-4A slate, Villarreal delivered a line of 27 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two assists to lead his team to a 62-58 victory Jan. 17 at Port Isabel.
Bobcats coach Mike Alvarez, who was an assistant coach during Villarreal’s first two seasons, observed the potential of his star player from the start of his high school career.
“I knew Jabez had a lot of talent when he competed (in summer tournaments against bigger schools), Alvarez said. “Having him helped propel our team toward being successful.”
Alvarez helped to unlock Villarreal’s full offensive capabilities as a passer who could spread the floor, having already established himself as a knock-down midrange shooter who could attack the rim.
“(The breakthrough was) when he realized he needed to get others involved,” Alvarez said. “And in turn, that would get him shots. I think that’s what enabled him to be more of an offensive threat. Because he can put the ball in the hoop at any time.”
As a result, Villarreal learned how to be more effective playing without the ball, becoming a more active rebounder. He led the Bobcats on the glass, with 255 boards.
When he looks back upon his high school career, Villarreal will have checked off several boxes that represented longtime personal and collective goals.
“Definitely making the playoffs and having a 20-win season,” Villarreal said. “Throughout my four years of high school, we had always had our season cut short, and we were just a couple games away (from qualifying for the postseason). So that was good for us to be able to remember that.”