The Grande Finale: How Weslaco defied the odds to earn the Rio Grande Valley’s first UIL softball title

The Panthers captured the UIL Class 6A championship on a game-ending grand slam

SAN ANTONIO – Weslaco softball coach Mario Rodriguez readily admits that he doesn’t remember everything that’s happened over the last eight days.

“Even today, I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t even take a little nap,’” Rodriguez told KSAT. “We are in summer break, but I couldn’t even take a little nap because I was afraid I was going to miss something or somebody had to tell me something.”

One moment will be stored in Rodriguez’s memory bank forever. His Weslaco Panthers shocked the state and beyond by capturing the UIL Class 6A softball championship one week ago.

Running the numbers

Nestled between Donna and Mercedes — and a three-and-a-half-hour drive south from San Antonio — is Weslaco. The city, arguably the Mid-Valley’s most in-the-middle city, is the seventh largest by population in the Rio Grande Valley (40,160), according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Weslaco, a city with only two UIL-sanctioned high school programs, trails behind more populated RGV cities like Brownsville (186,738), McAllen (142,210), Mission (85,778), and Pharr (79,715), which all compete in cities or school districts with three or more UIL public high schools.

Weslaco High School, the city’s first public high school, has been one of the Valley’s most storied and consistently competitive programs. In 2023, the Panthers’ football team completed its third 10-win season since 2018. Their girls’ basketball team won its district outright, and their boys’ basketball team earned a split district title back in February. The baseball team’s 2024 season ended in the third round of the UIL playoffs.

The Panthers’ softball team, though, has been Weslaco’s most dominant program. They qualified for their first-ever UIL Class 6A state semifinal in 2016, but they left Austin empty-handed.

Any team that desires a shot at bringing home championship hardware will have to have talented athletes and steady coaching. If you want to be the team hoisting the title trophy on Red & Charlene McCombs Field in Austin, the odds will have to be on your side, as well.

However, as of the 2023-2024 school year, the University Interscholastic League reported 247 Class 6A high schools that fielded softball teams. Schools in the 6A classification have Texas’ largest public-school enrollments, which means 6A schools often offer the state’s stiffest competition with the deepest potential talent pool spread out across 32 largely adjacent districts and four geographic regions.

Entering the 2024 season, no RGV softball team had competed in or won a UIL state championship game.

‘Something special’

Slim odds aside, the most important number to the Panthers to start the season was one.

In 2023, Weslaco fielded a club full of underclassmen at important spots on the diamond. With only one graduating senior on last year’s roster, the 2024 team began the season with 10 seniors.

“We knew we had something special,” Rodriguez said. “I say that because of the commitment — not just a few of the girls from the team, but all the girls on the team. We had a lot of returners. Last year, we only graduated one senior. As soon as we lost (in the third round of the 2023 UIL softball playoffs), it didn’t take very long for all the girls to start going to the weight room, to start attending our summer skills sessions. They put in a whole lot of work. I knew we had something very special coming back.”

Sophomore shortstop/right fielder Andrea Ortiz’s big moment came in the state title game, but she said the seeds for a successful playoff run were planted when the season began in February.

“Since our tournaments at the beginning of the season, that was when we really got close. We started talking a lot,” Ortiz told KSAT. “Throughout the season, we created this special bond with each other, that we all wanted to have each other’s back. I mean, the seniors were going to leave us already. We wanted to end this year special for them.”

The Panthers competed in softball tournaments in the Rio Grande Valley, Houston area, and Seguin to end February and start March. Weslaco won 12 of 16 early-season tournament games against opponents from the San Antonio, Laredo, Austin, and Houston areas.

“I just knew that we had each other’s backs from the very beginning,” Weslaco sophomore designated hitter/catcher Clarissa Mejia told KSAT. “We were going to end the season strong.”

The Panthers ran into very little resistance during District 32-6A play. They won all 10 district games, outscoring opponents 129-8 and shutting them out seven times.

Weslaco was playing its best softball entering the postseason.

Win or go home

After a two-game sweep of the Mission Eagles in the first round of the UIL playoffs, the Holmes Huskies presented Weslaco with its first serious challenge in the area round.

The Huskies defeated the Panthers 4-1 on May 2 in Game 1 of their best-of-three series. One more loss would have ended Weslaco’s season.

“(After Game 1) We were going back to the hotel room to have team meetings, and I remember telling the girls, ‘Guys, we can’t change who we are,’” Rodriguez, who completed his 18th season leading the Panthers, said. “‘We cannot change who we are just because we are facing better pitching. We are who we are. Our approach needs to be what we’ve done all year long.’ And they responded by run-ruling San Antonio Holmes twice.”

The Panthers’ boost didn’t end there. Weslaco swept La Joya in round three and took two out of three games against Austin Lake Travis in the UIL Class 6A Region IV semifinals. Perhaps the most shocking playoff results came against the Brennan Bears in the regional final round.

The Bears, who were eyeing their first UIL state semifinal appearance since 2017, were swept away decisively by the Panthers, who won 16-3 in Game 1 and dominated Game 2 in a 21-2 win.

“We knew what we were going up against. We’re a power-hitting team,” Mejia said. “We watched film on them beforehand. As soon as the game started, we knew what was coming.”

Weslaco stood tall as the champions from Region IV and was on its way to Austin.

“We had our saying: 3-2-1, which in Weslaco, is 321 miles away from Red (& Charlene) McCombs Field,” Ortiz said. “That was definitely our goal from the very beginning.”

Scratching and clawing

For Weslaco to play in the state title game, the Panthers needed to slay a giant.

The Denton Guyer Wildcats made their return to the state tournament with unfinished business to address. In 2023, the Wildcats lost 4-2 to the Pearland Oilers in the UIL Class 6A state championship game. The Texas Girls Coaches Association didn’t go out on much of a limb when it picked Denton Guyer as the No. 2 Class 6A team in its preseason poll.

At game time on May 31, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 by the TGCA.

Sophomore pitcher Madelyn Cantu stepped into the circle for Weslaco, albeit not at Red & Charlene McCombs Field as her team had hoped. Inclement weather pushed Weslaco’s state semifinal game and two other games to East View High School’s softball field in nearby Georgetown.

Cantu’s arm, which Rodriguez said was fresh due to a lot of short outings earlier in the season, would need to hold up. Early on, it did. On offense, Rodriguez’s daughter, senior Mia Rodriguez, ripped a two-run double to put Weslaco in front 2-0 in the fifth inning.

In the bottom half of the frame, down 3-0, Denton Guyer answered back with three runs of its own to square the score.

For the next six innings, both teams were scoreless. The Weslaco offense scratched out two runs in the top of the 13th inning and Cantu closed the door on the Wildcats in the bottom of the inning. The final tally, approximately four hours after the first pitch was thrown: Weslaco 5, Denton Guyer 3.

Weslaco’s postgame celebration took on a different look. The 10 seniors on this year’s squad were unable to attend their own high school graduation ceremony with their classmates back home. Instead, the graduation ceremony came to them.

Senior players Elizabeth Craig, Ema Galvan, Daisy Hinojosa, Kalysa Izaguirre, Romy Nuñez, Miranda Pantaleon, Mia Rodriguez, Alexis Soliz, Keira Soza, Lauren Perez — along with student manager Abraham Garces — donned their caps and gowns and received their diplomas in Georgetown.

Rodriguez said the Friday morning venue shift affected the team.

“That was a blow to our girls, and that was a blow to the seniors because they wanted to walk on Red (& Charlene) McCombs Field,” Rodriguez said. “We had a seniors-only meeting before we loaded the bus. ‘We, as a coaching staff, apologized that we were not able to keep our promise to you, as far as graduating on Red McCombs Field. But our goal is still to play on Red McCombs Field. All it means is we have one more game to win, guys, and we’ll get to play there.

“‘Use that as your motivation and lean on each other.’ And they did.”

For all the marbles

The UIL Class 6A state championship stage was set: Weslaco meeting the Waco Midway Pantherettes, who won the 2010 UIL state championship as a Class 4A school, at Red & Charlene McCombs Field in Austin.

Waco Midway wrestled control of the game after Weslaco got within 4-3. The Pantherettes plated three more runs to make it 7-3 through six innings, but they were not done yet. They tacked on two runs on two home runs off Weslaco pitcher Madelyn Cantu to make it 9-3 Waco Midway.

“My first assistant (coach), Daniel Hinojosa, he calls the pitches. We gave up two home runs in the top of the seventh. That’s when I called time, and I went to the circle,” Rodriguez said. “I looked at them in the face, straight up, and said, ‘One inning was not going to define everything you guys have accomplished all season long. Believe in each other, keep playing fearless and back each other’s play.’”

The bottom of the seventh inning was Weslaco’s last chance to dance. With one out, sophomore Dayla Hinojosa chopped a ball back to Waco Midway pitcher Lanee Brown. Brown threw the ball wildly to first, allowing Hinojosa to take second and also cruise into third base.

Leadoff hitter Alexis Soliz followed with a run-scoring single. 9-4 Waco Midway.

Lola Reyes drew a walk. Then, Mia Rodriguez walked, prompting Waco Midway to change out Brown for reliever Camryn Carter with the bases loaded.

Carter then plunked Mejia with a pitch on a 3-2 count, bringing home another run. 9-5 Waco Midway. Bases loaded.

Next up was Elizabeth Craig, who hit a grounder that took an awkward bounce before it reached Pantherettes third baseman DaNia Durr’s glove. 9-6. Bases remained loaded.

Romy Nuñez then lined a single to left, bringing home yet another run. 9-7. Bases were still juiced.

Before she stepped into the batter’s box, Ortiz had a message for her coaches and teammates.

“I said to them, ‘I got it,’” Ortiz said.

Up to that point, Ortiz was 0-for-3 in the game.

“I definitely knew that I couldn’t let my other at-bats affect me,” Ortiz said. “This was a really big game for us, a really big inning. I came out there with a fresh, new mindset. I went into that box with a lot of confidence because I knew I was going to do something for my team.”

“She said, ‘Coach, I got this,’” Rodriguez said. “And I was trying to give her instructions, like, ‘Dre, make sure to stay back.’ Because the (Waco Midway) pitcher was changing speeds, and she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. ‘I got this, Coach!’

“Even in the at-bat, she had a 2-2 count, and I was still trying to give her some more instructions. She looks at me, and with her hands, she says, ‘I got this, Coach. I got this.’”

On the 2-2 pitch, Ortiz attacked. She sent the ball over the wall for a walk-off grand slam. The final blow turned the game — and Texas high school softball history — on its head.

Weslaco 11, Waco Midway 9.

“I was fouling off a lot,” Ortiz said. “I knew, if I got a pitch like the ones I was fouling off, then I’d be able to hit it. That pitch — I just got on it, and it went over.”

“When she (Ortiz) hit that riseball pitch, I thought, ‘Oh, she’s seeing the ball really well,’” Rodriguez said. “‘Go do you, girl.’”

“I was in the dugout, and I was telling one of the girls, ‘She (Ortiz) was going to hit a home run right here. She’s going to walk it off,’” Mejia said. “She swings, and we all just run out of the dugout and try not to fall over each other.”

“I got trampled,” Ortiz said. “At home plate.”

Around the RGV (and the world) in eight days

Weslaco’s surreal state title win did two things.

First, it gave evidence to outsiders what many in the Valley already knew: RGV softball is state championship-level softball. Weslaco’s 2016 run to the state semifinal round was not a fluke. Neither was San Benito’s run to Austin in 2023.

Weslaco also made history on the same day with another RGV program. Harlingen South High School made its own run to the UIL Class 5A state title game. The two largest classifications in Texas had RGV representatives playing for state softball titles.

What it also did was blast Weslaco softball across the Valley.

The local media requests began rolling in.

Tune into WILD 104 radio station now!! Thank you!! 🏆💜🥎🤍🤘🏻

Posted by Weslaco Lady Panther Softball on Tuesday, June 4, 2024

A parade is scheduled to celebrate their win.

Posted by KRGV on Thursday, June 6, 2024

Several Weslaco restaurants offered free meals to the newly branded UIL state champions, including Denny’s, who understood the assignment.

A round of GRAND SLAMS for the State Champs this morning. 🥞🍳🥓☕️ Thank you to Denny's owner and staff for treating the team and coaches to a slammin' breakfast. 🏆💜🥎🤍🤘🏻

Posted by Weslaco Lady Panther Softball on Tuesday, June 4, 2024

The moment Weslaco’s win went beyond the Valley and beyond Texas happened when SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship sports show, caught wind of what went down in Austin.

“I woke up in the morning, and I start catching up on the text messages and everything. I go, ‘What? ESPN?’ So, I click on it,” Rodriguez said. “It was this whole presentation, and it was awesome.

“We had a ceremony yesterday (Wednesday) with guest speakers and dinner. I made the comment to my coordinator and to my director, ‘Guys. I thought we were just playing a softball game.’ They said, ‘Oh no, this is a lot bigger than just a softball game.’ The magnitude of what the girls accomplished — it’s awesome that everybody takes a lot of pride in it.”

SportsCenter anchors Gary Striewski and Randy Scott discuss Weslaco softball's walk-off grand slam to win the 2024 UIL Class 6A state championship game. (ESPN)

“I don’t think it’s even gone through our minds yet,” Mejia said. “I still wake up and think, ‘Is this actually real?’”

Drive for ‘25?

The City of Weslaco formally celebrated the Panthers’ state title with a parade Saturday morning. Fans and residents lined Texas Boulevard, which runs through the heart of the city, as Weslaco players and coaches rode on by.


Posted by Weslaco Lady Panther Softball on Sunday, June 9, 2024

According to the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame’s website, the Weslaco softball title is the first UIL-sanctioned title by a girls’ team. The previous winners, headlined by Donna’s Class 2A state championship football win in 1961, were all done by boys’ teams.

“It feels amazing that we were able to do this, not just for ourselves, but for one another, the community behind us and the whole RGV,” Mejia said. “It’s nice to know that little kids look up to us like we used to when we were little and looked up to older girls.”

The championship parade is behind them, but things aren’t going to slow down for the Panthers just yet.

“At one point, we were talking about starting our summer skills sessions for next year’s team,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got to start focusing on next year’s team.

“But I told the girls, ‘As much as you may like or dislike all the attention that we’re getting, to me, it’s still an awesome deal. Watching all you guys still as one team is awesome.’ We’re still together. Our season ended a week ago, and we’re still going to all these functions as a team.”

Read more reporting and watch highlights and full games on the Big Game Coverage page.

About the Author

Nate Kotisso joined KSAT as a digital journalist in 2024. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in the Rio Grande Valley for more than two years and spent nearly three years as a digital producer at the CBS station in Oklahoma City.

Recommended Videos