Jan. 8, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

With a flash it was upon them, with nary a moment to ponder or plan. Scant days after beginning the latest futbol season, almost before some of the new faces and new names could become linked in coaches’ minds, it was 50 degrees, and time for Coogs-Jags.

Not that anyone really minded seeing the biannual collision of traditional pitch powers. It’s just that with only a tiny handful of non-district games for warmups, no one really knew what they were going to actually see, beyond the ubiquitous rivalry. 

That explains why the first half at Econ Friday was a mish-mash scrum of peaks and valleys, each team scrambling to get into the right places at the right times, more often than not coming a step slow or early. Such is life in Pandemic Football right now.

“We’re doing what we can, but it’s tough,” said North coach Elias Moran. “We have a lot of new guys and some who didn’t come out because their parents wouldn’t let them play, which we understand.”

Faced with an inexperienced side, Moran has fallen back in the early stages upon a trusty mantra.

“Play as a team, shine as a team,” he told his athletes during the pregame huddle. “It’s in your heart, look at the shield on your shirt, you’re playing for Edinburg North and that has to really mean something to you.”

On the other side of the green, coach Sam Gonzalez was trying his own techniques to overcome a similar problem. For the first in many moons, Econ is without veteran talent, having graduated 19 seniors off a side that once again challenged for the district title. In warmups he had cones set out and gave his callow youths a quick quiz on where to be in the rotation, what to do once the ball moves to another spot.

So they began and as is sometimes the case with unseasoned troops, the battle was scattershot, and uneven, yielding seven goals for the night, five for the Cougars. Eight minutes in, North broke the seal after a nifty one-on-one move from Axel Saenz, one of the few Coogs with playing chops. He got the ball in the box on the right side, faked toward the byline, cut it back inside, and finding no defenders closing down, fired a shot past the keeper at 32:32. Good start, and North followed that up minutes later with another attempt, to high goalie catch.

As Gonzalez seeks to find out what he has following a 0-3-1 start in the abbreviated non-district stretch, he is starting to see the pieces in perspective and relief. Freshman Brian Garcia, younger brother of former program stalwart Chris Garcia, shows some of the same coordination and ball skills as his sibling. He worked his way down the left side consistently in the first half, using control and jukes to get space. Ulises Zuniga, a center forward with pace, was filling the channel well but the final ball eluded the Jags during the first phases of the night.

Midway through the half, though, the Jags did equalize. Zuniga leapt in the air to try and connect on a cross, coming hair’s breadth away. However, the Orange kept the pressure hammer down, and got a karate kick of a goal off a subsequent corner by Eric Obregon (brother of ex Jag Juan Iracheta) to tie it at 18:14. This is the trial and error a young team has to go through. Second cross paid off.

Garcia continued to work on the left side, but North was finding space also, down its left flank, and took advantage on a keeper miscue to bundle in a goal off a long free kick that was not handled; this play from Saenz came inside the final 10 minutes. Undaunted, the Jags scrambled for a nice moment of combination play with three kids pinging the ball back and forth downfield until Garcia almost slotted a goal. All in all, the teams were starting to settle into the game as the half closed.

With such new sides lacking real competitive experience, the first 10 minutes of the second half were going to be telling. Up 2-1, North proved to be ready to climb the learning curve, but not before Econ almost pulled level again. Juan Rodriguez of the Coogs saved a long ball in the box with a slicing clearance, and his mates came down to dent the old onion basket. Emiliano Nevarez, an elusive little cat readily identifiable by a shock of blonde hair racing across his head, scooted loose far post to deftly clip home a free kick that sailed right to him at 30:05. The score gave Moran’s crew a two-goal cushion and from there, the visiting side started to dominate. Big turning point there, no Jag goal/North goal.

Edward Mejia and Ivan Calderon appear to be a suitable pairing in the midfield with good touch and instincts to get the ball moving out wide to the wings. North looked the more settled bunch in the last 30 minutes, working the ball smartly into promising areas against a tiring Econ defense. 

Though Garcia continued his solid play, and Zuniga came close with a chase and chip at 22 minutes, North was not to relent. Rodriguez found Nevarez with a sweet pass for a shot, and on the miss, Saenz came crashing in to net the ball for his hat trick at 18:37. Rodriguez himself rocketed in the fifth goal a few ticks onward. In the waning minutes, freshman keeper Adrian Alvarez of North pawed one away up top for a great save but the Jags got consolation with a late Zuniga tally for the final 5-2 margin.

Each side benefited from the night of action as the Jags showed that despite any real size in the back line – long a program staple – they have some able defenders, notably Gabriel Herrera. With the slick Garcia and impressive athletes in Zuniga, Obregon, and Javi Medellin, it’s only a matter of time before the perennial power overcomes those massive graduation losses to form a competitive unit. 

Moran was impressed with his team’s performance at times, frustrated at others. He is picking and choosing among a bunch of kids who are being forced to learn the varsity ropes as they go, though surely the midfield, plus Saenz and quick-hoofed Nevarez, are going to be steady hands on the district deck.

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