As far as emotions go, normally stoic Hays Rebel head coach Matt Sandoval let loose a wild ear-to-ear grin Tuesday as the final buzzer sounded at Bales Gym.
After four-plus years of waiting, Sandoval finally watched his Rebels lock a playoff berth via a 65-53 win over the Del Valle Cardinals. It marked the first time since the 2014-15 campaign Hays has reached the postseason.
It was a moment Sandoval always felt was within reach, even during times of struggle. Fueling it all was the team’s willingness to “trust the process” and overcome obstacles along the way.
“This year, we had a tremendous mix of kids. Between the experience and mentality of winning, it meshed well and here we are,” Sandoval said. “I’m proud. It’s a process. We knew it was coming and we stuck with our guns.”
Equally reveling in the moment were the 10 Rebel seniors who get the chance to experience postseason basketball for the first time. For senior Will Agnew, the tight bond forged by the current Rebel squad, especially the upperclassmen, helped the program reach new heights.
Rebel senior Carlos Rocha said trusting Sandoval’s process aided in their development both as players and as a team, even if the path wasn’t always easy.
“We’re glad to finally make it to the playoffs in our senior year,” Rocha said. “We want to go far, maybe even make it to state.”
However, punching that postseason ticket didn’t come easy.
Hays (20-10, 9-6) leapt out to an 18-6 first quarter lead spearheaded by adept rebounding and key buckets from seniors Durand Hill and Cayden Doyle. The Rebel lead grew to 34-21 at halftime before Del Valle bounced back in the third frame.
Led by senior Darion Jones, Del Valle opened the second half on a two-minute 8-0 run, cutting Hays’ lead to 34-30. Foul trouble was a partial factor for Rebel third quarter struggles, Rocha said.
But an old-fashioned three-point play by Rocha with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter righted the Rebel ship and allowed Hays to catch its breath, Sandoval said.
“They got nervous and a little tight to start (the second half),” said Sandoval. “They’re (Del Valle) tough to guard. They’re patient, but we’re good on defense.”
By slowing down its offense and attacking the paint, Hays kept Del Valle’s transition-based attack off balance, Sandoval said. Stingy defense also limited additional Cardinal rallies. Hays led 48-42 after three quarters and outscored Del Valle 18-11 in the final frame.
Rocha contributed seven of his team-high 13 points in the second half, while Hill scored six of his 12 points in the final two frames. Hays senior Cayden Doyle also finished with 12 points.
As a team, Hays went 18 of 26 from the free throw line, shooting 13 of 18 from the charity stripe in the second half.
“We drug it out with something more continuous (on offense) tonight. We were more patient and it lulled them to sleep where we equally could get to the rim,” Sandoval said.
While the fight for making the playoffs is done, the battle for positioning rages on.
Hays hosts Anderson Feb. 18 in what could be a battle to decide third place in 25-6A. Maintaining the status quo is what Agnew felt will be the key moving forward.
“We’ve got to do what we’e been doing,” Agnew said. “What we’ve been doing the last few weeks of district has been working.”