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ETERNAL CONFLICT RENEWED AS VELA, NORTH WAR TO DRAW IN GIRLS’ SOCCER CLASSIC

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Jan. 15, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

The scoreboard at North works only intermittently these days, probably a COVID result, as almost every other thing is, maddeningly enough. Time, ref? Like a tournament or a scrimmage, really, from the temporal perspective.

Despite that mild handicap, people did not need the lights and digits, really, to figure out the gist of the scene Friday night. Vela-North girls’ soccer, and there is a pattern, tested by time. It was boxer versus puncher, the eternal contrast of styles between rivals who truthfully are not overly found of each other. And so there you go. 

And true to form, the Lady SaberCats spent the chilly evening gliding up and down the pitch, touching the ball, making runs, and doing what Coach Americo Cortez teaches: playing pretty soccer. 

In their way, again as always, was the hard-nosed side from North, which plays more like an old-fashioned English football team – compact, physical defense and a Route One attack with long balls into the box – than a South American side displaying juego bonito. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, year after year, and new North mentor Gabriel Camarena, though he is a huge futbol aficionado, knows that the Lady Cougars have dominated the series between the two by being tough, resilient, and taking chances when they arise, however occasionally.

One didn’t have to watch the match Friday to know the drill, though doing so reminded some of a past encounter, three or four years back. Then, Vela held a one-goal lead into the final minutes until North broke loose for two bang-bang goals at the wire to win.

This time, 2021, more of the same, only it was the visitor which nicked a point out of the fixture with a last-minute denting of the net. Vela’s Taylor Campbell, having been buffeted by the district’s best defensive line for more than 70 minutes – again, a recurring theme of the Rivalry has been, Find No. 9 and find her a lot, and hard – came through with a mammoth header off an exquisite cross from newcomer Nayla Pena, putting the equalizer on the board (figuratively, obviously). Thereby she thwarted the North chance at what should be considered an upset, seeing that Vela was the district’s No. 1 seed into the Playoffs That Never Happened, a year ago.

This was an awesome sequence, on which the long-legged Pena roared down the right side and just when she reached the byline and was about to run out of room, launched a sailing cross that the senior (!) Campbell whumped into the net with an emphatic grunt. 

Prior to this shocking development, North had withstood the usual assortment of peppery shots on goal from Vela, with sophomore keeper Belen Santana looking and playing much like former program great Gaby Cano back there, equal to every attempt. And the Lady Cougars had made their chance count in the second half when speedy Trinity Ochoa ran onto a goalie spill off a 40-yard Lady Coog free kick for a 1-0 advantage. Time? … not sure.

“We stay focused, come on, stay focused,” Camarena had told his girls after the score. At halftime he’d informed the Lady Coogs, 2-0 coming in, that they were doing what he’d asked them to do, to perfection.

“Stay compact, and be ready to counter, and you’ll catch ‘em,” the rookie coach had told the side, with all of two subs listening in (no depth this season for North). “I am very proud of you, our shots have been better, we just need one, stay focused and it will happen.”

Proud is a good word for the efforts North made in the first half, minus do-it-all sparkplug Deyanira Hernandez, who’ll be sidelined for at least three weeks. Luckily, equally athletic and physical Brenda Ricardez was back in the mix, and that always helps. She and Lizzy Loera, with help from Jajaira Hernandez in support of Santana, bumped and bruised the Lady Sabes as they generally do, weathering stylish runs from the wings by Pena and another new face, equally lanky and well-skilled Mia Ponce. Those two, plus versatile Crystal Palma, have energized the Vela attack well so far, the Lady Sabes having scored 21 goals in their first two 31-6A outings, including a ridiculous 15 tallies in a monumental rout of Pharr North in the opener. Against the overmatched Lady Raiders, the fluid Palma (sat out Friday, a slight knock) had five goals, or a “glut” as the parlance has it, and Campbell – one of the Valley’s greatest all-time players– added five more against La Joya in the second match.

Still, she knew, did the lithe and indefatigable Campbell, that North is a different animal altogether. She wearily jogged off the field after the first half Friday, shaking off the blows and a chalked off goal (offside) during the initial 40 minutes, and simply said, “It’s a tough game out there.”

NIL-NIL, READY TO THRILL

Early in the second half, on a hazy night that made visibility less than 100 percent on the pitch, Vela survived a scare when its retooled defense parried away a North counter, junior Bailey Jo Gonzalez getting back smartly. With defensive whiz Ky Richards up to midfield for her senior season, the Lady Sabes are a side that wants to keep the ball and advance it, playing defense, as the saying goes, offensively. It is a physically imposing backline in 2021 with less raw speed than in the past.

Anyway, Ricardez was everywhere after the interval, trying to take advantage of mistakes. North, see, is the opposite number, packing it in and defending, seeking the counter, and its attack, beyond darting moments from Ochoa or bounding bursts from Janelle Saenz, is designed for patience. As Athletico Madrid and Wolverhampton Wanderers (pre-Raul Jimenez injury anyway) have shown, laying back and being ready to strike can be a winning formula.

This dance of difference continued apace as the half wore on, Vela cruising out of the midfield with crisp passes from Richards and outstanding sophomore ball-handler Nat Cortez. Classmates Pena and Ponce took turns down the right side, sending danger-laden crosses into the area with regularity, which is something that Cortez has been wanting, technique-wise, for some time. Now he has it with that talented sophomore group, and Campbell should benefit this season from enhanced service from the flanks, saving her the hassle of having to create chances all by herself.

But every time the Lady Sabes executed their game plan, North would do the same, putting a body or two on the great Vela forward, making the rangy newcomers work to get loose to provide in the channel, and girding inside the box to make sure no stray balls were diverted into the twines. They gobbled everything, did the Lady Coogs.

Midway through the half, North got its reward for steady progress toward a goal, as Vela’s Odessa Leal shot to a goal catch, and then Richards tried a promising free kick to naught. Like a flash North was upfield and winning a restart, leading to the aforementioned goal, and all of a sudden, clock or not, the Blue and Black realized that if it were going to turn the tide of history, time was running out.

The North crowd, which for years has carried on its own twice a year battle with the Vela fans, to great amusement from disinterested parties, was in rapture about now, making howls of generally good-natured noise. Vela supporters, all low grumbles, for now.

“Stay focused!” growled Camarena from the North coaching area, which has been moved back to the track for some idiotic reason this season. Just say that the coaches try and maintain their mandated distance, but really, that works against the grain of what a coach is and what the kids need. But onward and whatever.

Cortez played Campbell in for a shot, which Santana handled chest-high, and then Pena slalomed around two defenders sweetly but misfired in a chip to goal. Here was the renewed onslaught that reminded one of another Cat Fight a few years back, when North had all of two shots on goal, Vela 22, but the Lady Coogs got over, 1-0, this coming amid the long reign of the estimable and now retired Coach Danny Valdez.

The danger of an attacking mentality is, as stated, the counter, and with about 15 minutes left, the home girls took off after a Vela error in the mids but were stopped short of a solid try. Back came Vela with Pena operating once again, juking with the ball and quick-hipping her way like she was on an obstacle course. Her high lefty chip asked serious questions of Santana, but the latter was able to paw the shot just as it showed its eyes for the net. Murmurs from the Vela fans, shouts of “portera!” from the North rooters. Such rich theater.

Alayna Rodriguez, yet another member of what has to be the Valley’s best sophomore contingent, then inserted herself into the Vela forward fray, matching North’s physicality with her own impressive strength on a few tantalizing maybes into the 18-yard box. At this point, midfielder Nana Gonzalez was back on D for North, and so at times was Saenz. Ricardez bombed a Vela cross out of there with a strong header and Hernandez cleared twice, moving upfield with the ball to show her all-around ability package. Time and again, Vela knocked on the door, but Loera, Hernandez, and Ricardez, along with Hannah Leal, were steadfast.

Then came the terrific, timeless header from Campbell, off Pena’s perfect byline smash, and Vela felt the magic. One-one and down it came in the waning minutes and Cortez found space, only to be closed out by an alert Saenz, who flashed from behind to knock Cortez off the ball.

Just when it seemed a draw (no penalties this year or OT, another over-compensation and annoyance) Campbell broke free from the pack with a sight of goal. She ran all the way to the byline before reversing field and trying to center. Ricardez and Ruby Torres – all 11 behind the ball at this stage for North – put the stops to that notion and it was done.

Another stellar clash between bitter rivals, and we mean bitter. Contrasting styles and oodles of history under the bridge. In his first Rivalry Rodeo with Vela, Camarena proved to be an active, involved mentor, working with zero depth but connecting well with the kids he does have. And he has to be pleased with the effort, if not the two points grudgingly yielded at the 11th hour. Cortez of Vela also has ample reason for optimism, with his new sophomore strike force full of serious footballers and a couple of super seniors on hand to help the rookies negotiate the varsity routine day by day.

Have been waiting for this season for a long time, and now it is here. Joy!

NOTES: EHS is off well at 3-0, with a first-night victory over perennial threat Juarez-Lincoln to its credit. Econ dropped results against EHS and North but played well in each, and broke into the win column with a boom, getting seven goals past P-SJ-A Friday night, including two each from Maria Rocha and Anahi Luna. 

On the boys’ side of things, North led Vela late (late, bro) before a goal off a free kick from Emiliano Luna rescued a 2-2 draw. It was the first blemish for the SaberCats after decisions over Pharr North and La Joya to begin. Econ continued to labor under extreme inexperience, dropping to 0-3 after a 5-2 loss against P-SJ-A while EHS clipped Mission, 1-0 Friday, following a 2-1 triumph over the Jags and a 2-2 draw with Lincoln on the opening night.

The schedule ahead (and make sure to make sure during this nutty season) shows EHS and Vela tying it on Tuesday, boys at EHS (6 p.m.) and girls starting at 8 at Vela. To put it bluntly, Tuesday will have distinct impact on the league race in the nascent stages. It has to be seen, savored.

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