Part II: Depression Era Basketball: Junior Tarpons brought home the bacon at Cameron County Championship

In this composite photo, the 1936 Port Isabel Junior Division Cameron County Champions stand in front of the Port Isabel school building. Standing left to right: Stanley Wells, Manuel Barrientez, Coach Alvon Allmen and Leonard Williams. Sitting L to R: Garza, Carl Chilton and Gonzalo Gonzalez. Colored photo: Brownsville Historian Carl Chilton wearing his P I letterman’s sweater.

Special to the PRESS

Rio Grande Valley high school and junior high division basketball got a boast in the 1930s by the La Feria Lions Letterman’s club.  C. E. Vail, La Feria coach and Cameron Country director of sports was the leader in promoting athletics in the entire Rio Grande Valley.

Beginning in 1933, Vail’s Letterman’ Club hosted the valley-wide basketball tournament for both divisions.  This tournament was generally recognized as a “warm-up” session to determine the Valley champion.

It was a basketball era when parents could not afford to buy tennis shoes for their kids, so some played in street shoes—like shown in the given photo.

By 1936, the annual tournament grew to 28 teams, 16 in the high school division that included:  Mission, Santa Rosa, La Feria, Raymondville, Weslaco, Lyford, Los Fresnos, Rio Hondo, Pharr, Sharyland, Donna, McAllen, Mercedes, Port Isabel, San Perlita and Wilson Tract.

The junior high division teams, which also participated in the two-day, double-elimination tournament, were:  La Feria, Wilson Tract, Edinburg, Weslaco, Port Isabel, Raymondville, Mercedes, Harlingen, Mission, McAllen, Donna and Lyford.

A call for donations

But before the first jump ball of the ’36 season took place, a call for a donation of trophies was made.  Due to the hard economic times of this period, school districts could not afford to buy trophies for the winners.  

The call was issued by the Valley Athletic Council (VAC), promising that by the following year, there would be sufficient funds to cover the cost for trophies.

In order to finance the purchase of these trophies, the council wrote, “Each participating community in the Valley will be asked to furnish one sponsor to cover the cost not to exceed $6.00 per trophy.”  It was estimated that for the year not more than 12 trophies would be awarded for all sports.  

Valley representatives of the VAC included:  F.C. McConnell of Weslaco, S.V. Neely of San Benito, and M.W. McGee of Lyford, Carl Chilton Sr. of Port Isabel and E.C. Deering of Harlingen.

Cameron County Tourney Begins

With all the intangibles in place, the 1936 Cameron County championship tournament got underway.  Although the high school games were extremely competitive, in this particular year, the junior high division took the show—especially in how the Port Isabel Juniors climbed from the losers’ bracket to play in the title game.

The Tarpons were rated among one of the best in the tournament, a tourney that included eight teams from the county: Port Isabel, Santa Rosa, La Feria, San Benito, Harlingen, Los Fresnos, Wilson Tract and Stuart Place.

But Port Isabel’s drive to the championship had a major stumble in the first game of the tournament as they lost to the stubborn Santa Rosa squad, 12-11.  The road to the title game now meant that the “lighthouse boys” would have to win three straight to make it to the final show.

The next opponent for the Tarpons was Los Fresnos, but for some unknown reason, the Falcons forfeited their game.  After that point, P. I. went on a roll as the Tarpons defeated San Benito, 18-10 and took care of La Feria, 14-11, thus propelling the Tarpons to the county title game.

In the final game, the mighty “Tarpon Wave” faced the Harlingen Cardinals.  The ’Cards were without a blemish, unbeaten going into the title game and were favorites to defeat the ’Tarps, who had been defeated in an earlier round by Santa Rosa

After the first period, the Harlingen boys dominated the floor taking an 11-to-3 lead, but by half time, the Tarpons’ pressure defense, and scoring, cut the lead to 15-13.

The third period ended in a tie, 18-all, and with two minutes left in the game, PI took the lead by three points and held it to win the Cameron County Championship, 25-22.

Editor’s Note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian, and humanitarian with a wealth of community service to his credit.  

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1 comment

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    • Steve Hathcock on March 12, 2021 at 7:04 pm
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    Great history!
    Steve Hathcock

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