Jan. 29, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Elias Moran had seen this before, a few times, so was suitably worried. As the game between his Cougars and EHS played out at The Stadium Friday, each side took turns dominating the run of play. When North went on its runs, though, no proper chances were taken until the wee hours.
“We had 15 shots, something like that, against La Joya,” he had said before the matchup of Old Cats. “We should not have lost that game. Against Vela, we were ahead until the last seconds; our problem is not dominating for stretches of the game, we can do that. We just need to put some shots in.”
Friday was D-Day for North, because a failure to pick up points against the high-flying Bobcats would have placed it out of shouting distance of a playoff spot. Even though the first half of the fixture list has not been completed, the Coogs were in desperate need of a little net luck.
Factor in the reality of low depth due to several injuries in the squad, and odds were a bit long. The balancing element to the drama was that EHS had been forced to play on this very pitch the night before – COVID again, a postponement from Tuesday – and so Coach Luis Cardenas was anticipating seeing a tired group by the end of Friday’s encounter.
It all played out well enough in this key showdown, as despite the obstacles, North was able to carve out three vital points. The 1-0 victory stemmed from a great sequence midway through the second half when leading scorer Axel Saenz turned provider, hopping on a loose ball in the attacking third and sliding a perfect pass to a running Anthony Flores. The sophomore Flores tapped in with ease at 17:37, and North’s defense – led by durable Adolfo Huerta and the imposing Angel Herrera – withstood some late EHS forays to keep the clean sheet.
True to form, the Coogs, now on 11 points to 16 for EHS, had periods of excellent play. Saenz was buffeted by Humberto Martinez and the Bobcat backliners most of the night, but slick Fernie Ortiz was active in the middle of the park and other teammates sparked a number of offensive moves. Keeper Adrian Alvarez was solid, stopping some expert shots from Dilan Cazares and the Bobcat offense, and the win was much needed.
“You had the same attitude all game long, you were excellent and aggressive,” Moran told his assembled crew afterward. “We beat the team that is first, and what does that mean? It means that we are very good when we play the game the right way, you just have to believe in yourself. Even though we had people in the bench with injuries, you guys played hard.”
When the match began it looked like EHS was intent on repeating its fine performance from the night before, a 2-0 decision over La Joya. Midfielder Adrian Taboada was strong with the ball and Hernan Tovar, the little speed demon who had been sidelined until last week, was roaming and racing right, matching the mazy runs of goal hound Cazares on the left. The ‘Cats had some early chances, including a shot from Kayden Moncivais, but the strong-legged Herrera was able to clear with pounding boots. EHS employed a high press to leverage its superb team speed and at the outset, North was struggling.
At 29 minutes of the first, Taboada went onto the roof of the net with a blast, but this signaled the end of a Bobcat spell and the beginning of one from North. Martinez – a tough little senior with leadership skills and real moxie – was forced into a running clearance to thwart a Coog run and later Saenz worked to a corner. Even when veteran Angel Garcia went out to an injury, North did not flinch, as Ortiz played to a decent try with help from the able Edward Mejia.
Huerta then came up with a mighty challenge in the back, after crafty Cristian Castillo of EHS stole one at the midline and passed to a streaking Tovar. This was another turning point, as Cardenas’ side got back on the good foot with a few sharp passing sequences. Give and take all night. Fun watching.
Six-one sophomore Ethan Garcia, who has added strength this season, worked on the ball well, using his body as a shield and advancing downfield. He went high in the air on an EHS corner to head home but was denied.
With 13 minutes left, Mejia broke loose and sped toward the box, chased by Brandon Calderon, the third brother of that illustrious family to wear the Red and Blue kit. Mejia ended up getting a shot off from the left, side netting.
It was end to end for the rest of the half as Ivan Calderon of North (no relation) culminated a well-worked passing spree with a shot attempt; Garcia created several chances with his technical ability; and Huerta made yet another clearance after a Tovar-Moncivais one-two manufactured a promising moment. Although he was battling an injury, Emiliano Nevarez came close for North, only to be stopped by Moncivais on defense. Juan Rodriguez, a winger playing right back in the wake of the North injury woes, performed a great tackle to end a Bobcat run left, and it was goalless at the break.
LITTLE THINGS MATTER
Moran is fond of saying that playing without the ball is a very important concept in football.
“What do you do off the ball?” he asks. “Because 90 percent of the time, you will not have it. I want our players to be proactive when not in possession. And that means helping out on defense, closing the space. Sometimes guys will just wait for the ball, and that is not the way the game is supposed to go.”
As if on cue, the Coogs improved their overall level of quality in the second half, beginning to control the ball when they had it, working hard when they did not. And the payoff for the solid shift was in the offing.
Cazares, whose quickness and agility on the ball for EHS belies his somewhat thick frame, again began to slalom through the North defense in the half and at one point, the ‘Cats pounced on a 3-on-2 break led by Tovar. Herrera was there however, and turned away the run, and when a subsequent Rodriguez tackle on Tovar earned a free kick for the ‘Cats, North again held its rival off. EHS won several set pieces in the half but its deliveries were not sharp enough. Meanwhile, keeper Donovan Luevano kept the Coogs at bay with his booming goal kicks.
Midway through the half, EHS advanced well after a steal from shifty Angel Perez, but North countered the EHS counter with a long ball that Cazares ran onto, producing a shot that went wide. It was again a wide-open affair, with winger Dibanhi Villarreal cruising onto a header off a corner that went top of goal, the best North chance of the night to that stage.
It was threatening a draw, as Cazares made a smart header pass into the box, only to have Herrera clear. Then came the cannon shot, as Mejia of North zoomed a long one to a goal catch, leading to a defensive mistake on the goal kick, which Saenz collected and passed to Flores for the match’s only goal.
North was on a roll now, and Saenz came close, only to have a determined Martinez seal him off. Down the pitch, Rodriguez executed a dangerous but effective shoulder-to-shoulder smash on Cazares, who had slipped free down the left channel. Soon, an EHS free kick showed promise and the Coogs survived a goal bobble to kick out.
Late in the proceedings, Cazares again danced into the box for a try, but the equalizer was not forthcoming. Huerta made another defensive gem when the Bobcats used a centering ball from Tovar to Castillo to get in, at five minutes. The last hurrah for EHS came when Garcia popped the ball across the goal mouth in the closing seconds, Tovar’s first-time clip sailing over.
“We’re back in the fight,” said Moran after the stirring win. “We hadn’t been taking our chances, and tonight we got one to go in. The score never really tells the story. We should have won some of these games that we lost, but now, we got one, and you know what … winning on Friday always makes the weekend go better.”