Feb. 2, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
In the course of a match, Robert Garcia has never been the type to look behind him. Keeping up steady chatter to his Lady Jaguars, the long-time manager is lasered in on every bounce of the ball, and his kids have come to expect an earful when they don’t perform as expected.
There is even less incentive for Garcia to turn around in 2020-21, because if he were to do so, he would spy just two or three substitutes sitting in folding chairs, waiting for their chance to see the pitch. Due to a combination of setbacks ranging from COVID, to grades, and work requirements, Econ hit the field Tuesday at Richard R. Flores Stadium with four starters not in attendance. And this was one they had to have, as a bottom-dwelling Pharr North unit had come to town.
“Yes, it’s tough, and not uncommon this season around the Valley,” said Garcia, noting that most teams have at one point had to compete with less than the optimum numbers. “But with us, we have 11 or 12, and that’s about it. So when people are missing, it is really hard for us. But we need the points tonight, we sure do, we have to be able to beat the teams that are on our level.”
Garcia, who led the program to two district titles in the past, admits that against the likes of Vela, Juarez-Lincoln, EHS, and Edinburg North, it’s an uphill climb. In the five matches prior to Tuesday’s, the Lady Jags had beaten P-SJ-A and Mission, dropping games to the Lady Bobcats, Lady Cougars and the Lincoln girls, though they had been tough outs against EHS (1-0 defeat) and North (2-0 loss). The Lady Raider side they faced Tuesday had yet to win this season in league play but did manage a puzzling 1-1 draw with EHS earlier. PN is big and physical, and not scared to mix it up.
That combination of attributes posed a challenge for the Lady Jags, because size-wise they are nothing special this season, full complement or not. Luckily, two of the few Orange kids with enough muscle to handle the rough stuff ended up having stellar showings in a 3-0 victory, as senior Maria Rocha cruised to a hat trick of goals and junior Neyda Garcia provided some hard-nosed play to counter the physicality of the Lady Raiders.
Garcia gave his side some sage advice before the whistle: press and push, on one hand, but relax and pass the ball on the other. Econ then went out and did a pretty nice job of following the mentor’s guidance.
With leading defender Reyna Vazquez sidelined, the Orange back line took some minutes to settle into the match behind sophomore keeper Ingrid Rodriguez, who was to record a clean sheet despite being sorely tested several times. Early on, sophomore Dulce Martinez raced way back into her own box to clear a Lady Raider effort, and she gradually grew into the game, as did senior Tanya Hernandez and others.
It wasn’t long before Econ started to get forward, with sturdy midfielder Audrey Reyes controlling the ball and looking for the runs of Rocha and Anahi Luna. While it was Rocha who barreled her way to three goals, Luna was very sharp all night, putting her head on the ball, winning 50-50 opportunities, and showing solid ball-handling skills. At times this season it has been junior Diana Soto acting as Rocha’s attacking partner – with Reyes always a fulcrum – but Tuesday Luna was active and effective.
Martinez came up midway through the half to win a ball and play Rocha in off a throw and the Lady Jags took the match by the scruff of the neck by earning numerous set piece chances. The only missing link was the final ball, but that would come in time. At 24:59, Rocha raced down right, and though she seemed to have run out of room, was able to get a crisp strike on the ball from an acute angle, beating the diving keeper for a 1-0 advantage.
The best part of Rocha’s performance was its purity. Sometimes she can get tied up in battles with opposing defenders and will not hesitate to defend herself out there. But against Pharr North she was focused and clinical, using her surprising speed to punish slower defenders and never falling for the baiting tactics – including hard tackles and a few of what one might term cheap shots – of the enemy. Instead she played like a senior in a must-win situation, staying safely away from potential altercations and proving that she’s a more mature athlete these days. Bien hecho.
North came back to get some tries, but Rodriguez was equal to the task, and Tuesday she was to make a half-dozen saves, a few of the spectacular variety. Luna romped down for a try on goal as the Lady Jags countered, but this led to an unfortunate stretch of ugly soccer, with missed kicks, squibbed passes, and general mayhem on the field.
Econ was first to recover from this momentary lapse of football reason, and finished the half with solid passing and movement, using its edge in team speed to flummox the lumbering Lady Raiders. Rocha earned a free kick which Reyes fired just over the bar and Rocha got in again off a Reyes throw from touch but could not score. North came raging back on a counter and managed two shots on target, near the end of the half. The visitor had its chances, as stated, and Econ weathered a dangerous chip with 1:30 to go that could have tied the match.
“We knew at that point that we had better get that second goal somehow,” Garcia commented after the result had been safely tucked away. “If they get that tying goal late in the half, it’s a whole different story. With a young team like we have, moments like that can hurt their confidence.”
Pharr North came out after the break and set to the attack, getting into the box a few times but failing to level. On one breakout, Neyda Garcia tracked back 50 yards to harry a Lady Raider and force her to shoot wide. Sophomore Jackie Maldonado was also in the action at this point, defending several times in the middle of the park; she is a real hustler, that one.
At 28 minutes of the half, the Lady Jags got a tantalizing glimpse when Luna nearly headed in a corner and then Luna – who to restate was magnificent Tuesday – sent a long one to a rampaging Rocha, leading to a Maldonado shot on target. Ten minutes later came the breakthrough as Rocha was stopped on a shot at close range but was first to the carom, slotting home at 17:28 for the all-important two-goal lead. She is a tiny stick of dynamite waiting to go off, and very few girls can use their bulk and power so well in tandem with quickness and agility. What a well-conditioned player, No. 20 never seems the least bit tired!
With some breathing room, the Lady Jags did not relax but instead turned on the jets, with Luna playing to a corner, Rodriguez withstanding a Pharr North chip that was very scary, and Martinez coming up to project a beautiful first-time volley off a cross that narrowly missed.
Rocha finished the night of work by deftly deking a pair of PN defenders out of their socks to slip in and slam in her third gem, with 5:01 to go.
Garcia was satisfied with the performance, especially considering the paucity of fill-ins to use for giving rest. The Lady Jags who were there all contributed to the decision.
“That is what it’s all about, get the points against the teams we can beat,” he said after the final whistle. “I think we did a pretty good job tonight, and Anahi, while she was a little rusty earlier in the season, she is coming around, starting to play at the level we know she can be at. Ingrid made some nice saves tonight and the defense, though we were missing some girls, I think they did well.”
Now on nine points with their three victories, the Lady Jags rest in fifth place in a nine-team league. They were to play a makeup game against league leader Vela, at home Wednesday, before Friday’s match on the road at La Joya.