MISSION — When the game was on the line during Sharyland Pioneer’s Class 5A Division II Region IV area round playoff game against Marble Falls last Saturday, Diamondbacks receivers Tristan Castillo and Joseph Graham Jr. stepped up and into the spotlight.
The duo brought in big catch after big catch as Pioneer marched downfield to pull off a 54-47 win and punch the Diamondbacks’ ticket to the third round of the playoffs for the second straight year and second time in program history.
Now a senior, Castillo has been making plays at the varsity level for the Diamondbacks since his sophomore season. With the addition of Graham, who is currently in his first-year playing varsity ball as a sophomore, Pioneer (7-0, 4-0) has found a dynamic one-two punch at wide receiver in a pass-heavy offense.
As Pioneer senior quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger puts it, he’s “blessed” to be throwing to receivers like Castillo and Graham.
“Those two guys can just get it done,” Pioneer head coach Tom Lee said.
Two years ago, Castillo started his sophomore season at receiver but didn’t see much action due to the Diamondbacks’ depth at the position. Midway through the season, coaches gave him a shot at running back, and he fit right in.
Castillo went on to rack up over 1,000 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns during his first year, adding another element to the Pioneer offense. As a junior, Castillo cemented himself as one of the area’s top backs as he piled up over 1,700 all-purpose yards and 13 total touchdowns.
Now a senior, Castillo has moved back to the receiver position and has produced elite numbers as the Rio Grande Valley’s leading receiver with 822 yards on 49 receptions to go with eight total touchdowns in just seven games.
“I really credit that to our coaches. Here at Pioneer, we coach football players,” Castillo said of the way he’s used all over the field. “If you can play football, they’ll get you in the right spot, and I just got to do what I got to do.”
While leading the Valley in receiving this season, he’s also rushed for 262 yards and lined up at defensive back, kick and punt returner, and serves as the team’s extra point holder.
Against Marble Falls in the area round, Castillo had eight receptions for 107 yards and picked up multiple first downs on catch and runs.
“You talk about a team player, that’s a team player. Playing defense, returning kicks, returning punts, holding on extra points, he does everything we ask him to do,” Lee said of the senior Castillo. “Against Mission Veterans, he logged 35 plays at cornerback. When you say versatile, team guy, someone that’s willing to do whatever it takes to be successful, that’s what he’s been for us the last three years.”
Similar to Castillo’s sophomore season two years ago, the current sophomore Graham has burst onto the scene as one of the Valley’s top players after just seven games at the varsity level. Graham currently ranks third in the RGV in receiving yards this season with 750 yards and 10 touchdown grabs.
“His mentality is not like a sophomore. He runs really good routes, and he’s only getting better,” Lee said of Graham. “He’s developed a quick chemistry with Eddie. He just gives us speed downfield and the route running ability has just been unbelievable.”
As a freshman in 2019-20, Graham caught eyes as a receiver and defensive back playing for the Diamondbacks’ freshmen team. Although Graham didn’t suit up for Pioneer’s third-round playoff game last season, Lee took him along for the ride to San Antonio’s Alamodome as the then-freshman watched from the sideline as the Diamondbacks lost to Boerne-Champion 45-38 in overtime.
“I’m glad that Coach Lee took me last year just to get me ready. It was amazing standing on the sideline watching them go down to the very last play, and now I get to experience it, it’s really cool,” Graham said.
Against Marble Falls in this year’s area round, Graham exploded for 292 yards and four touchdowns on nine catches, including scoring the game-winning touchdown with :12 seconds remaining.
Castillo, Graham and the Diamondbacks are now set to face Georgetown East View at 7 p.m. Saturday at Buccaneer Stadium in Corpus Christi in the Class 5A Division II Region IV semifinal.
“We worked hard for a while now, and the hard work is paying off,” Castillo said.