One by one, they stepped up to be counted, interviewed during a break in Tuesday’s workout. And to a man, the Bobcats seemed to be working from the same script, repeating the important messages, stressing similar goals and philosophies.
This was by design, and for a great reason, explained EHS coach J.J. Leija.
“I think it reflects the belief the guys have in our program, it shows they have bought in, and they agree with the things we have taught them,” said the third-year coach. “So to me, hearing them voice their opinions, it shows me that they’re three-year guys, they’ve been around, and they are a huge part of the resurgence we have been able to make at Edinburg High. Really, they are the product, what we have been working to build.”
After two years of effort, Leija and his staff have established the Bobcats as a playoff contender; they’ve made the grade the past two campaigns and are picked to do so again in 2018. After assistant stints at P-SJ-A North, La Joya, and Econ, among others, EHS grad Leija was ready to put his own program together.
“I learned a lot under Bruce Bush and Orly Garcia at P-SJ-A North, and I worked well with Freddy Hernandez at La Joya, Oscar Salinas at Economedes,” Leija said. “Bruce was so organized, he had everything planned, every detail, and then he was sorts of hands-off from there. He gave us assistants a lot of responsibility and authority and that’s what I try to do here with the Bobcats.”
And his players show the care and detail that the Cat staff has made their priority. That extends to an approach to the game, decidedly “team first,” to be sure. Leija likes to say that they are teaching the kids to push themselves, motivate each other, and never back down.
Senior Mannie Salinas is a good example of learning and application. As a leader of the defense, he knows what is expected of him and his mates.
“Some of us have been playing together for three years and we know what to do,” said the aggressive, playmaking safety. “The chemistry is there between us and I think we can have one of the best D’s in the district.”
Salinas, who pairs with Ryan Ochoa, Enrique Aldape and Aaron Alfaro in the back four, notes that the ‘Cats want to be steady and consistent.
“We’re thinking day by day, not trying to rush things,” he said. “We’re not thinking of playoffs right now, we just want to do what we have to do every practice.”
Sounds like Leija, who will point to one of his mentor Bush’s favorite maxims: it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so it’s not where you start, but where you end up.
Another veteran Cat, record-breaking runner Hearlin Benavides, also echoes the beliefs of his coaches.
“I don’t really think much about that, the yards and the touchdowns,” said the hard-charging back who set a school record with 1,678 yards as a junior. “To me, it’s the team and how good we can do as a group. Just working hard, pushing each other, that’s the thing. We’re on track and I hope we can accomplish a lot as a team.”
Lazaro Patlan, a defensive standout on the line, is all about team as well. He suggested that some new faces on the unit, tackles Emmanuel Duron and Leo Gomez, are going to turn some heads this season.
“Duron is big and strong, and Leo, man he has some big arms,” laughed Patlan, who stressed that the group is bent on conditioning in the heat during the preseason, to be ready for the 10-game slog. “We’re technically pretty good right now, we just have to get into better shape.”
As for Leija’s charge that the kids never back down, always keep fighting when things don’t go swimmingly, Patlan can testify.
“Last year I had a foot injury early, and it kept me from doing very much,” said the 220-pound end that by season’s close was perhaps the unit’s best performer. “I just kept working and started to come on as I got healthy.”
Words are words, everyone knows, and the proof of the talk is always in the walk. Over at EHS, the football program seeks to turn one into the other, in a seamless process of belief, action, and results.
“We don’t know how we’re going to do this year, no one ever knows, at this stage,” Leija explained. “What we do know is that our kids listen, they work, and they believe, and so as I said, when they talk to reporters or other people, they repeat the things that are most important to the program: the discipline, the team concept, those aspects.
“And generally, if you’ve got some talent, and you follow the rules and work hard, buy in, you’ve got a chance to be successful. That’s all anyone can ask, as a coach. The results take care of themselves.”