Jan. 8, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here to select game photos
Some things were missing, but some familiarities were there, too.
For starters, as North hosted the Lady Jags for the District 31-6A opener, there was no Danny Valdez, for the first time in forever. The long-time coach of the Lady Cougars has retired at long last, making way for new blood in the person of Gabriel Camarena, a fellow who’s banked solid experience with the UTRGV club soccer outfit and Longoria Middle School. Having assisted with the team for the past few years, Camarena was a logical choice to succeed the legendary Valdez, but even he was absent Friday, quarantined. In his stead was total continuity as trusty veteran assistant Raul McCallum took the reins. So the coaching carousel turned at season’s start, but once the teams started trading rounds, it was obvious that some things will never change.
When the Lady Coogs and Lady Jags get together, there is bound to ensue a physical and at times testy encounter; this has been the history, and it repeated itself for 2020’s kickoff.
Econ’s fiery Maria Rocha, a motoring tank who asks no quarter and gives less, was on her mark, forcing into the attacking third with relish, daring the Lady Coogs to step in front. Now North, frankly, has never been loath to accept such challenges, we know, and so the fixture was consistent with scrappy wars between Rocha and the North D, manned ably by veterans who know how to deal. Though Lizzy Loera and Deyanira Hernandez are neither of them anything but slender, they are both hard-nosed kids with sharp elbows and expertise at positioning. Third defender Jajaira Hernandez brings a bit more power to the fray and is equally adept at playing the ball and man.
This was the script for Friday, as what appears to be an improved Econ side under hard-working coach Robert Garcia made a solid account of itself, playing the Lady Coogs to flat zeroes for 60 minutes until the home girls chipped away for two late goals and a 2-0 victory. The old doubleheader routine is still in effect during the never-ending pandemic, though with a twist. The Jag-Coog boys’ clash came off starting at 6 out east, after which the refs packed up their gear and headed off to North to officiate the girls’ action. So is it really a doubleheader anymore? Pick nits, if you will.
A REAL WAR
In terms of returners, Econ has more, as almost its entire roster is back from last season. Garcia always says teams come in waves, classes, and at times, you can bring back the majority of your group and enjoy a fruitful season, minus untimely injuries, of course. With this formula in mind, Econ looked exceedingly credible Friday, with kids all over the pitch who have ridden these rapids before. Starting in back, Reyna Vazquez was impressive in her debut season of 2019-20, while fierce Audrey Reyes – one of only two seniors of note in Orange – is among the league’s toughest midfielders. And then there is the indefatigable Rocha up front, where for three-plus campaigns she has made life miserable for opposing squads with her strength, surprising quickness, and bona fide mean streak. Adding to the mix this time around is a right winger, Diana Soto who is active, tries to make things happen, and should be a solid starter going forward.
Meanwhile North has brought back its stellar defensive group intact, though replacing famed keeper Gaby Cano is a work in progress after her graduation. Up front, the Lady Coogs can still rely on frenetic forward Janelle Saenz to work and work, while rangy option Arianna Gonzalez has playing experience in midfield. Mixed bag for North now, as several other girls seek to win their stripes, including trackster Trinity Ochoa on the right wing and rugged midfielder Meagan Leal, who shows potential as a pivot.
In the beginning Friday, North was launching its usual volley of distance shots, attempting to shorten the field and turn enemy mistakes into points. But with Vazquez and Gloria Ibarra minding the store, the Lady Jags held firm. Ten minutes in, Reyes cut one back and fired a strong shot over goal after some busy duty from Soto on the wing, and in the first half, the Lady Jags were probably the more settled outfit in some ways.
Econ came down the right side next but Deyanira Hernandez, so sure in her skills, used a hard shoulder lean with exquisite footwork to body the marauding Rocha off the ball and gain possession. A simply textbook defensive sequence there.
Up the pitch, Saenz continued to roam and rip, with Ochoa seeking to use her speed and freshman Ruby Torres (Elvira’s sister) also looking lively, if light.
But it was Econ which enjoyed the next promising stretch as the strong-limbed Reyes ripped possession back with a tackle and fed to a running Rocha. Garcia’s side then won a free kick in the North half but Reyes went over with a thundering boot.
Gonzalez clobbered a strike for North which sailed wide and back came the visitor, Rocha’s long run finding resistance from Loera until Soto got a shot off, to no avail. This was the caper for now, North defending with excellence, Rocha and Co. pounding away. Good football, though not without a hint of malice.
McCallum notes that this season, he and Camarena are doing a few new things, and one is having the defenders available – encouraged, really – to get involved in the occasional offensive foray. D Hernandez, for one, has always acquitted herself well in this regard when given the chance, and Loera, long the pride of the stop set, can handle it and take the space as well.
Hernandez thus stationed herself up front toward the end of the half, with the D adjusting accordingly, as the Lady Coogs looked to shake loose a slightly sluggish attack that had probably settled on bombs a bit too much thus far.
And yet, there was Econ, strong to start the second half, and this might be a trend. Out of the race for the past few years, the Lady Jags have watched as North and Vela, now EHS, have jockeyed for playoff spots and glory. Maybe it is their time to join the party; they certainly played like it at times in the opener.
First 10 minutes, Rocha surging and slamming, until Loera shouldered her off, whereupon each warrior held her hip and shook her head. Pow! Game of Bruises.
The Lady Jags got the ball in the box for some pinball but North survived. Soto tracked back 50 yards after a run to stop a North effort, and good grief did the Orange hustle Friday!
Steadily, though, quality turned to North as Saenz kept grinding and the defensive charge began to wear Rocha down. Anahi Luna, a crafty player, nicked the ball away twice for Econ but the weary offense was bogging down. The Lady Coogs, conversely, looked energized, earning a series of set piece opportunities, Loera banging side-netting on one. Econ was living dangerously now, soon getting a last-ditch punchout from the keeper to save a golden North chance with 20 minutes left.
As the field tilted in their favor, the Lady Coogs cashed in on a sweetly lofted shot by Ochoa from the right that evaded the goalie and nestled in for a 1-0 lead. Smelling blood, North swarmed, with Saenz slotting over the bar. Then, against form, Econ mustered a strong counter and nearly leveled, D Hernandez coming up with a parrying clearance at the crucial moment.The Lady Jags had gas for one more run with Reyes fighting through fatigue to start a chance. It ended with Rocha in the box coming oh, so close to the equalizer, only to fade when Hernandez again successfully contested the attempt of her Econ foe. Then, North’s girls came back down and parlayed a soaring blast from