Feb. 2, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

It was potentially farcical from the start, really, but the Jags ended up making the most out of it and moving on with some lessons learned.

To begin with, the clock ticked to zero during pregame, as it inevitably does, but there was no other team there yet. Seems that Pharr North, in this most difficult of seasons, has had more trouble than most. They were late. 

The Raiders finally arrived and some observations: 1 it looked more like the school’s football team, physically, or maybe a bunch of family members at a reunion … hey, let’s kick it around. 2 They had no subs. 3 They had conceded nine goals per game to date.

The average coach in this scenario might have been unhappy, a bit miffed at the fact that the night was not going to offer the familiar competitive test between commensurate sides. But this is no ordinary season and so Sam Gonzalez, though he made a few quizzical glances at the Pharr North contingent early on, got down to business.

After a few minutes it became obvious that there was absolutely no way they were going to lose against such a sub-standard foe, so the Jags used the 80 minutes as a much-needed practice session, winning 14-0 amid stretches of work on various aspects of the game such as sending the ball cross field, for example. These two teams could have played for 80 years and Econ would not have lost. Weird.

Gonzalez himself is in the midst of a weird period, too. For the first time in, well, since anyone can remember, the Jags began the season with a resounding thud, losing much more than winning, including debits in their first four league games. There were some blowout defeats. For a program and manager used to consistent excellence, it has been a difficult slog, getting used to the loss via graduation of 19 seniors. As his team re-warmed up for the match Tuesday, Gonzalez spoke to this phenomenon.

“If I had gotten these guys in September, like I usually do, it would have been different,” he said, shaking his head. “This is an entirely new team, and we really needed the practice time, being together in offseason, to get started. We didn’t get that time together and it shows. But they’re coming around. In the time we do now get, we are rolling things back to the basics, which is what you have to do. This is a new experience for me, put it that way.”

The good news from the East Siders is that they have started to outdistance the growing pains. Econ had won two in a row heading into the most recent outing, at The Stadium, and if they could manage a positive result against the Raiders, would be sitting on nine points. The wins over Mission and Vela reversed a trend of generosity from the Jag defense, which had leaked in 15 goals during the four-game losing streak. The Eagles and SaberCats had produced just one each, and Tuesday the Jags were destined to pitch a shutout of what has to be one of the most untalented teams in the history of the 6A game … no offense.

Even with the odds so long in their favor, the Jags took their time in fashioning the lopsided victory and it is ironic to note that in such a situation, it becomes a matter of getting out of each other’s way rather than dealing with any real obstacles from the opposing side.

Econ peppered the goal from the outset, running circles around the slower foe, and got off eight shots before the barrage finally started to pay off. The initial firestarter was freshman Bryan Garcia, who operated mainly on the left, dancing his way through defenders and either firing shots or passing into the area to set teammates up. Gonzalez says that Garcia, whose older brother Chris was a regular contributor for the program – and one of the 19 graduates – has the potential to be as good or better than his sibling. Skills.

On the right, there was the gifted Ulises Zuniga, who is very fast under normal circumstances, preternaturally so given the one-off set-up Tuesday. His runs were blinding down the right side, and eventually he was to connect four times in the rout.

Back upfield, thickset midfielder Jose Suarez was comfortable on the ball, seldom getting any resistance from the stumbling Raiders, who were a step behind on each sequence; they quickly tired in trying to contain the Jags, who may be green but are somewhat speedy, mirroring a trend that has obtained at Econ since the beginning of the program at the dawn of the century.

Garcia ran onto a free kick from the 20-yard line 15 minutes in and scored, but was deemed offside. The goal kick was as the goal kicks were from North all night, short and plodding, and this was the weakness that finally started the downhill slide. They just couldn’t clear the ball.

It was down to a miracle that Econ, having dominated action from pillar to post for the first 25 minutes, had not managed a goal, because it had sent shot after shot whizzing past the befuddled North keeper, to no avail. 

It was Zuniga that scratched first, sending a bullet into the net at 12:55. Just 27 seconds later Zuniga centered from the right corner and Javier Medellin got a head on it, producing a block from the goalie. Kevin Valdivia, doing what backside dudes gotta to do, was there for the rebound and the goal. Right off the restart, the Jags had scored again. 

Not settling for this bang-bang deal, they came right back, and a smidgen over a minute later, Medellin was in again, running right and slipping a worm-burner right past the keeper for a 3-0 count. Late in the half, Medellin was again the standout as, back to goal, he trapped a high bouncing ball and turned to attack the frame for the fourth goal. With five minutes to go before the half, it became five when Zuniga’s shot on frame led to another clean-up from Valdivia.

What does one say to a squad that is so obviously superior to the day’s opponent? The Jag coaches, after gently chiding the kids for having taken nearly 30 minutes to doop the ol’ onion bag, suggested that they go out and just work on their game. The call was for fast movement, a minimum of touches, and practice at switching the field and making overlapping runs. Run some plays, they were told, and that is a hard thing to do when a guy knows he can basically dribble through the defense and put one in. Discipline, much elusive but utterly vital.

For the most part, Econ responded to the task at hand, ignoring the mismatch and getting down to the basics, as Gonzalez had earlier said. Zuniga and teammate Rene Galvan worked on their interchange and 1-2 passing, while defender Pedro Vallejo got some usable time in, controlling, touching, and finding Jags racing upfield; he even came up into the attack at times, and is a tall and agile lad who shows leadership potential. Medellin, too, is a vocal presence who even when sitting out for a few stretches of the second half was active in yelling advice and words of encouragement to his mates afield. He would end with three goals to his name.

Keeper Edwin Huerta, though he could have sat in the goal mouth playing video games Tuesday, has been lauded by his coach as a hard worker who is improving every time out. He was not troubled against the Raiders, a stark contrast to the status of his opposite number at the other end of the pitch.

After Zuniga made it 6-0 early in the second half, Eric Obregon got into the drill at 33:20, catching the beleaguered keeper out and lobbing him perfectly from 30 yards out for a 7-0 score. Soon after, Zuniga produced one of the snapshots of a lifetime when he fielded a ball off a defender’s chest, set himself with his own chesting, and volleyed home from 15 yards out with a mammoth right-footer that seemed to make a zinging noise as it launched into the net at 27:50. The very definition of a golazo.

In short order it advanced to 14 for the Jags, nil for the other kids, but an interesting development kept the proceedings out of the realm of the ridiculous. Seems that one of the Raiders had once attended Econ (Rigo shoutout, holla!) and as the half progressed, he and his former teammates were talking and ribbing each other, good fun. The rest of the Raiders played a part without malice, trying their best and themselves exchanging chuckles at the way things were going. Remember the old Washington Generals, the perennial and hand-picked opponent for the Harlem Globetrotters back in the day, the team that had to lose or face the wrath of the paying public?

Say this about the Raiders. There was no lack of hustle and determination from them, and they were sporting enough not to fight unduly against the lopsided affair. Teams of lesser character would have deteriorated into cheap shots and ugly comments, but North did not, and that is to the credit of the players and coaches. Cannot have been easy to respect the sanctity of The Game under such trying conditions.

Upshot, the Jags rose to nine points with their third straight victory, getting much-needed together time, albeit under an odd rubric, practice time that will hopefully stand them in good stead as the second half of 31-6A play approaches.

“The challenge for us is to show that we can win, even though we are inexperienced and got off to a slow start,” Gonzalez stated. “It hasn’t been easy so far but once a team starts to believe, and this is the key word, belief, then they can begin to rise in the standings and do well.”

The rest of the district is sorry to hear that, frankly, because everyone knows that once the Jags get rolling, they historically have been almost impossible to stop. This latest crew has the latent potential and is busy assembling the pieces; the formula may be starting to take root. Tuesday may have been just another step along the path for the once and future kings.

NOTES: Vela continued its solid start to 2020-21 with a victory over Mission Tuesday and sits at 13 points, one behind Edinburg North, which blanked P-SJ-A. Idle EHS, at 16, is second in the table to Juarez-Lincoln, the juggernaut which has earned 21 points in seven matches. The Jags are tied with the Bears right now.

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