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Lady Panthers staying focused
[January 15, 2013]

Lady Panthers staying focused

WESLACO, Jan 15, 2013 (Valley Morning Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- After round 1 of the girls basketball season, there is no hotter team than Weslaco.

The Lady Panthers are ranked No. 1 in the Valley and No. 25 in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches (TABC) polls.

They have pounded just about every opponent, capturing 28 of the 29 games played this season heading into tonight's bye night. The only setback was against San Antonio Churchill when the team fell by 21 in the championship game of the Border Bash Tournament.

With eight returners from last year's squad, which lost in the area round to state-ranked Laredo Alexander, there are lofty goals for the 2012-13 year. Up to this point, Weslaco hasn't disappointed.

"Honestly, rankings were never important to me, whether it's a Valley poll or state," head coach Griselda Fino said. "I think my attitude has rubbed off on our girls. Whether we're ranked first or last, their job is still to go out and play like a Lady Panther." But it's natural for a team to lose focus and become complacent, especially for a young squad like the Lady Panthers. Of the 10 girls on the roster, five are underclassmen, including three starters, one of which is a sophomore.

Fino hopes her creative ideas will keep her club on the right path. She's had her assistants participate in practices while off the field, and Fino has asked for her team to bond with each other whether it's a team breakfast or lunch. And if she sees her team clicking at practices, Fino at times will cut it short as a reward.

She'll do anything as long as the squad maintains focus.

"Sometimes a team can be its own weakest link," Fino said.

And as long as Fino is in charge, the squad will emphasize defense first. It's helped the program make the playoffs in Fino's first six seasons as head coach, and there likely will be a seventh playoff run before this year is over.

"Defense is about effort and discipline," Fino said. "It's a matter of working hard." Allowing only 27 points per game will surely help a team go 26-1 to start a season. The Lady Panthers have allowed less than 30 points in an impressive 18 games, including eight games of less than 20. Two teams scored in the single digits. The most allowed has been 56 to the Alamo City school.

Fino has had great teams in her seven years at Weslaco, but never has she had this much talent and depth on a roster with the perfect formula of size and speed.

For starters, small forward Angela Johnson is a terrific defensive player and a great leader. She would be a starter for any other good team, but with the Lady Panthers she's a sixth-man player and has been since last year after recovering from an injury. And the great thing for the Lady Panthers is Johnson embraces her role.

"To me, starting doesn't matter as long as we get the job done," Johnson said.

Then you have size with Laura Van Tilberg, who stands at 6-foot-2 in the post and brings a good inside-outside game on offense and a presence on defense. Her name doesn't come out in the weekly reports of the newspaper because Fino chooses not to send stats to the media as part of keeping her players focused on the bigger picture and not individual statistics. Nevertheless, Van Tilberg is among the Valley's best, averaging 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game.

Jasmine Garza is one of the best shooters on the team averaging 12 points per game while Denise Vasquez also is a scorer and defensive specialist along with Summer Smith. Angie Villarreal is an athletic sophomore, who embraces the big moment. She made a strong impression in last year's playoff loss to Laredo Alexander and has filled in as the youngest starter on the team.

"The good thing is I started some varsity games last year, and I learned more," Villarreal said.

While Van Tilberg takes care of the paint, the guards bring heavy pressure to create discomfort and turnovers.

The players credit much of their success to a shell drill they spend about the half their practice working on. It's a 5-on-5 halfcourt drill where the players work on footwork, speed and communication. What they work on in practice is a big reflection on how Weslaco has played in games this season.

"It puts all our work into one," Johnson said. "We have good communication and we know where everyone is at. All five of us talk and even the players on the bench yell." Collectively the Lady Panthers have for the most part made things look easy with the goal of winning a district title and have an eye on a trip to the Sweet 16. But eventually there will be a team that will give them a run for their money. Weslaco East came close last week.

While Weslaco managed to pull away with an 11-point win 42-31, the Lady Panthers got a good glimpse of what may be a sign to come in the second round. They will be the targets.

"We feel like teams will go out and try to beat us," Villarreal said. "As long as we show up and play, we'll be fine." ___ (c)2013 Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) Visit Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Texas) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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