Jan. 29, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
It is well-nigh impossible to explain to the uninitiated, and frankly a losing proposition to try and reach and teach the haters. You know the type: “You don’t use your hands? That’s un-American, man … nobody scores, I mean … who cares?”
Truly, soccer has always faced an uphill battle in the straightforward States, with its striking tendency toward obtuseness and myopia regarding art, whereas the rest of the world, with a different sensibility, can usually intuit just what is magical about the Beautiful Game. They prefer its nuance, fluidity and almost-ness, its requirement of patience and its intermittent visitation of marvelous horror to say, the instant and endless gratification of basketball or the choreographed brutality of American football. Baseball? Oy, for old people, bro.
Which brings us to the specialness of the goalless draw, an elusive pleasure that, once again, cannot be enjoyed by either ham-handed sports snobs or results-driven hardliners who fail to understand and appreciate the understated hurricane brewing therein.
While some might see a paucity of points as a flaw, or defect, Something That Didn’t Happen, others – those who have come to see the buildup as a fabulous entity in and of itself – can recognize brilliance when they see it. Regarding the members of the madding crowd who count quality as they tally points … as the feminists used to insistently, sometimes militantly, say in the Sixties: you just don’t get it.
THE NEW WISDOM
Gabriel Camarena stood watching his Lady Cougars go through pre-game drills Friday, on a perfect evening for football, cool, not too breezy, and dry, yay, dry. The North coach, who from this vantage point is quickly burning past the interim tag by proving his considerable abilities every day, had a few things on his mind. One was a lack of depth on this year’s roster, and the other was the absence of two of his best kids. Other than that, he was cool.
“It’s been a fun year for me, although awkward,” said Camarena, who took over for the legendary Danny Valdez at the helm of the ENHS juggernaut. “Short staff, all the COVID stuff and really, the administrative side of this has gotten to me a little.”
Every young coach soon discovers that aside from the X’s and O’s, the joys of the ball games and the kids, there are 1,001 silly little things to take care of, and they figure out that if they don’t get it all taken care of, the buck stops with them. Paperwork as a menace. Part of the price to pay at the top.
“The key word is ‘adapt,’ and I have told the girls this,” Camarena continued. “I have had to do it, all coaches have, and I expect the same from the girls. If I can do, they can do it, too.”
Now that’s a sound philosophy, one that promises to teach, as John Dewey suggested 100 years ago, by doing, using real-time experience as the key to learning. Camarena also has a theory about missing players.
“It’s no secret, we’re down two of our best players tonight,” he sighed, mentioning that defender Lizzy Loera and all-around force Deyanara Hernandez were not on the team sheet. “But just now I told the team: ‘When we break the huddle, what do we say? We don’t say a person’s name, do we? What do we do, we say ‘Lady Cougars,’ that’s it.’ And I think they know what I was getting at.”
The opponent for this all-important clash at The Stadium was going to be a difficult roadblock. Coming into Friday, North and the Lady Bobcats of EHS were knotted on 14 points, a step behind the Vela machine that was suddenly derailed not by loss, but by quarantine, forced to sit out Friday’s action after a fierce (understatement) battle against Juarez-Lincoln Tuesday. This match would potentially send one side hurtling forward into a tie on the tabletop.
It figured to be somewhat like the Vela-North tilt earlier in the campaign, the high-octane attackers from EHS against the centurion defense of North. At times, it did end up following that script, but with some interesting derivations.
Coach Cerjio Elizarraraz has his shining stars up front and in Leah Sanchez and Miriela “Titi” Munoz, he can go to war with two of the Valley’s most dynamic jugadoras. But he also has some youngsters who have come onto the scene and begun to pay dividends. A strong freshman class has contributed to the crisp start in 2020-21, though it is no doubt that the upfield pair, plus the estimable Milena “Melo” Munoz and Kristen Salinas in back, are the spine of a great group.
Right off the bat, EHS brought the boom stick, with T Munoz playing in the frenetic Sanchez for what looked like a shot. All of a sudden, though, YaYa!
Yajaira Hernandez sometimes goes overlooked amid the other great ones on North’s roster. Loera is a four-year starter and Camarena calls her the best defender in the Valley, with good reason. Box-to-box defender/midfielder Brenda Ricardez is a supple, hard-ribbed gal who can cheetah run and always makes something happen out there. But Hernandez too, is startlingly effective without being flashy. An expert at positioning, she has a nice burst and agility in a short space, and reads the game like she’s been playing it forever. She got back to stop the Lady Bobcat rush, and that would be a recurring theme Friday.
The uber-talent Munoz managed a shot soon after but Ricardez, a fiery type who is loud and proud out there, made sure nothing came of it. EHS kept on cranking with Sanchez, whose low center of gravity and absolute ball and body control make her seem like a distant relative of Diego Maradona out there, pushing and pushing, nosing the ball her way and breaking on a dime to come and assault the goal.
Back at the other end, and as North grew into the game, it was time for the Lady ‘Cats to defend. Along with M Munoz, Coach Eli has a tall, methodical gal named Angie Molina, who is not what one would call a speedster but more than makes up for that with sweet timing. She will also put a noggin on the ball, which many kids will just not do. Some say the best header to ever play in town was an athletic Vela kid who starred from 2017-2020 and is now running track at Trinity, kid named, ah you know … Lol.
At any rate, Molina has been around and always seems to be in the right place. She had to be, because Nana Gonzalez, the rangy and aggressive midfielder, was starting to defend and connect, finding attacking mid Janelle Saenz and creating troubles for the EHS back crew.
Of course, an attacking team had better track back once possession changes, something Camarena had taken pains to remind his side of beforehand. 15 minutes in, it was Gonzalez working reverse gear to stave off a Sanchez run-and-pass to Munoz. At 27:35, EHS got close when freshman Dana Cruz got a touch on a Munoz cross. Lurking in the back was keeper Belen Santana, and much more about this precocious newcomer down the road.
Next, Cruz and fellow newbie Emily de la Garza worked into range before Ricardez elbowed her way out of the fray with the ball, leading to a surge from North. The Lady Coogs got in twice, and only clearances from Molina and then gutty senior Dani Toscano saved the day. So much for pack it in and defend: the Lady Coogs were kicking it.
However, EHS is relentless, with Sanchez contesting every ball like her life depends on it, and it took a supremely powerful header clearance from the fearless Ricardez to quell the tide. The teams then took off on a track meet, riding high to the box on both sides of the pitch, and as they say, this game seemed to have goals in it.
At 17 minutes of the half, Melo Munoz expertly cleared a North effort away, but the Lady Coogs then came close to the breakthrough, basketball star Sam Aguilar speeding into the area off a Saenz feed and setting up a shot, on which North whiffed. But the augur was positive nonetheless, because North was not parking the bus, those girls were churning! Unlike the Vela draw, when they were content to defend, counter, and look for a mistake, Camarena’s side was playing total football, more or less. And that kept the Lady ‘Cats off balance a bit.
By 13:30, Gonzalez was powering a long chip that Aguilar ran onto; her offering clinked off the goalpost, and back came the Lady ‘Cats. Fast. Soon, Sanchez and her younger sister, Bethany were doing 1-2 near the box – prolly done it 1,000 times in the backyard. As short and muscular as Leah is, Bethany is a different issue altogether; she is nearly 5-10 with a solid skill set and promises to be a fixture in the lineup in time. Leah created a chance for her sibling that was rudely snuffed out by a diving Santana at 12 minutes. Poof.
North came down with its own intent, leading to another sharp defensive play from Toscano and this started a Lady ‘Cat break that ended with Sanchez’ feed to Munoz and the resultant first-time rocket that went wide. The ping pong action was simply ridiculous right now. So good.
Every time the Lady ‘Cats went on the rampage though, Hernandez was there, taking her time and being precise. A highly technical kid, she never seems hurried or harried, and can turn it on when the time comes. A superior defender, period.
With seven minutes left, Sanchez barreled into Santana in search of the ball and Aguilar of North raced back down to create a half chance. Like tennis it was then EHS again in the area, where a perfect chest-down-and-clear from Easy Peasy Hernandez put out a fire. Ricardez bombed one to the goal mouth, EHS fielded and ran, after Sarah Garcia’s steal matched a rip by Ricardez on the rushing Sanchez. Hard to follow? This first half was like that, manic, man, simply wild.
And still no goals, by the way.
At the half, Camarena peered at his girls, who were a bit weary but feeling pretty confident, all told.
“Belen, Belen, Belen … wow,” is what he said, and the girls all clapped up storms for the keeper who had made several filthy saves in the first 40 minutes. Then the coach told his band an odd thing. But not really.
“Be selfish when you get close,” he said. “Maybe you miss but you will not make it if you don’t shoot. Another thing … if they are faster, you have to be smarter. If they are smarter, you have to be faster.”
After this quick tutorial on Finding a Way, North came out for the second half. But the Lady Bobcats had gotten their own wisdom from Coach Eli and Sanchez immediately stomped through two defenders to threaten. Heading attempted passes, whirling into tackles, and outworking everyone, No. 10 in white was something to see, as always. But Ricardez seemed to relish the opportunity to compete with her, and that she did, using her slender but strong frame along with outstanding closing speed to perennially bother Sanchez. Without the steady Loera at center back, Brenda’s best was needed Friday, and she was there to provide it.
Ten minutes into the half it almost collapsed for North as Santana was forced off her line, but amid the melee EHS could not fashion a clear shot on goal, though it would pound a total of 14 attempts on the night. At 27 minutes, a free kick with promise was gloved by Santana; seconds later it was the Lady Coog sophomore again, rising into the night to catch a wicked shot from Munoz, just as it started to sniff the upper corner, back post. A terrific reaction and over-the-shoulder grab by the goalie who is reminding us more and more of former program great Gaby Cano by the week. Facts.
The midsection of the half was punctuated by more highlight reel footage, until Gonzalez was called for an iffy (said North) foul on Sanchez, just inside the box. Up stepped Munoz to the penalty spot and finally, here surely the high-scoring Lady ‘Cats were about to do their thing. But Santana guessed right, holding her ground in the middle of the goal, whereupon the EHS shot sailed almost right to her at 23:41. Sometimes a keeper stays rooted, choosing not to dive one way. And this is how it remained nil-nil, as they say in ol’ Manchester.
But EHS was fired up, immediately coming back to the chase. Munoz and Sanchez partnered to construct a prime chance, with Santana again finding herself out near the edge of the box. The ball rolled and rolled, heading for the North net, until the last instant, when Ricardez, in a flash of magnificence, overtook it and cleared to a corner, that did not scratch. Looking for a Key Juncture? This was it. An absolute dream of a hustle play from Ricardez. She … just … wanted … it. Bad.
North started to percolate again after the near disasters, Aguilar running right and Gonzalez standing fast in the mids. Abby Martinez was on now for EHS and starting to make a difference, especially with powerful throws from touch that had one thinking of the great Destiny Rodriguez, whose cannon shots across the main became North lore and legend about 10-12 years ago.
Still, North did not settle for defend-only. Saenz battled her way into the box for a shot with 17 minutes left and then came right back with another run on the right, centering at 12 minutes but finding no teammate running the channel to unwrap the gift.
At the other end, Titi slick-foxed her way past a pair of defenders until that kid, again, Hernandez, calmly stepped into a sure tackle. That led to a high blast of a clear from Gonzalez, who was very active and effective Friday. Now it was Trinity Ochoa for North with a big throw-in to goal, and on the EHS counter, freshman upfield prospect Ruby Torres – forced back into defense with the depleted roster – came up roses with a smart stopper play.
At 4:15 of the game, Martinez of EHS sent a free kick into the area from the 20-yard line, which Sanchez leapt for and headed wide. A minute later, with the Lady ‘Cats throwing it all on the line, Cruz got a shot away in deep, but it would not get past Santana. Only one more attempt from this amazing night of football and it came from the supposedly offensively challenged side.
North earned a free kick from the 20 with a minute to go. Gonzalez slammed a hot one, too, but with a deflection it clanged off the bar, and as the Lady Coogs frantically rushed to set up for the ensuing corner, off went the horn, and that was that.
It was fitting, too, this scoreless draw, because neither team (ramp up Cliché Machine) deserved to lose. They went at it for 80 minutes, with numerous testy tangles to say the least, but the action, while always hard, was never dirty. Each rival attacked with energy, defended with grit, spit and polish, and performed like it wants to win district this season.
Of course, both will have to tackle Vela again before it’s all said and done, and right now – with the infusion of several scintillating sophomores to an already first-class side – the Lady SaberCats have to be considered a favorite to hoist the hardware. And then there’s that pesky Lincoln bunch (speaking of spit and polish, but that’s a whole different story) which will definitely be contending when it gets out of COVID stir.
Bottom line, the North-EHS tussle was one of the best matches ever played or seen in town. The girls left it all out there, as it should be, and anyone who walked away from it grumbling about points and goals, in spite of the obvious excellence they had just witnessed … well, sadly, they’re just one of those people.
They just don’t get it.