March 2, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
This was the Big One, really, though things can always change and often, in football, do. The second clash of 2021 between Bobcats and Cougars came off Tuesday night at EHS, and a battered but unbowed home side managed to punch out a 1-0 victory thanks to a second half goal. The result was similar to the one from the first Rivalry bout, when North nudged home a 1-0 decision with a score after the break.
This time, both sides came in with injury woes, separated by just two points in the District 31-6A table. After Cristian “Bicho” Perez slickly side-footed an assist to Avdiel Garza with 18 minutes left, the Bobcats held on against a furious rush from the Coogs to climb ahead of their foe. EHS was on 30 points after the triumph, North at 29; the good/bad news for the Coogs is that they held a game in hand. Both teams have yet to oppose a salty though inconsistent P-SJ-A club, but the Coogs have another match, against league leader Juarez-Lincoln, meaning they have two chances to get a max six points while the ‘Cats have just one to get three.
It’s fitting that the 2-3 slots in the playoffs should come down to a last-second shuffle, just as the two games this season have been taut, close, and hotly contested. Both Elias Moran of North and Luis Cardenas remarked on how even the Rivalry has been in 2021, and Tuesday was all about that.
The Cougars looked the smarter side early, spraying clear passes onto the flanks and allowing the wings to run, with the obvious plan of trying to give leading scorer Axel Saenz (12 goals) a few chances. Center forward Saenz does not need much space to be able to dent the net, really, with his excellent holdup play and ability to turn and swivel through multiple defenders for lethal shots with either boot. Though North has missed tough little Emiliano Nevarez, who is out for the year, the lithe Fernie Ortiz and several other North midfield types have carried the load well.
Saenz got a shot in close during the opening portion of the night but lying in wait was EHS keeper Donovan Luevano, who was to make some tremendous saves in the match to go with his always thunderous goal kicks. Up the field, a new/old face appeared in jersey No. 21 for the ‘Cats. Perez was one of the leading lights on last year’s squad but did not begin this season with the group. Now he is back and up to his mischief, hard-nosed play with skill and cleverness. Cardenas says that after a long layoff, the stocky little sparkplug is just achieving prime match fitness, and that is a benefit for the fortunes of his school for sure.
Behind Perez and crafty trickster Christian Castillo, the ‘Cats worked their way into the proceedings, with Hernan Tovar – another Bobcat who has missed time this season – speeding around and creating opportunities. Probably the fastest player on the field Tuesday, Tovar is also surprisingly strong, and that combination of attributes makes him a continuous danger.
Midway through the first half, after EHS had warmed up to the task, North struck like lightning but a goal from Saenz was ruled out due to a foul. Saenz will lull you to sleep, appearing to be just hanging around outside the area. But he can get into full gear quick and has deft feet which he uses to outfox defenders in the box.
EHS meanwhile has made a living out of being faster than other teams but went to war without key components Jerry Vidal and Dilan Cazares, both nursing hamstring injuries but expected to be back in action soon. Luckily, Cardenas can still count on Ethan Garcia, although he was gamely competing with a groin strain. Truly, the ‘Cats were wounded for this key encounter, but they managed to gut out the result anyway.
Despite the missing pieces, Cardenas noted that the one area of the field that is still intact is the defending third, where Humberto Martinez played through an ankle sprain Tuesday and did a fine job in closing out the Coogs. Rangy Saul Salinas had a terrific defensive night, especially with header clearances, while right back Brandon Calderon was sound. The irony is, EHS came into the latest campaign minus its top defender, as we know. Cardenas said that the back line has remained injury free and is probably more agile, across the line, than in 2020.
The first half was an entertaining tug of war with neither rival ascendant for too long and it was an odd scene because the fans were super quiet. This was a mandate of sorts after the ECISD police had been forced to chase all the rooters from the girls’ game – played prior to the nightcap – after a vociferous round of huzzahs tilted the decibel and decorum level past the relatively low bar that has been set these days out on Wisconsin. For good reason, you know.
The second half was more of the same, each side having stretches of positive play, but neither grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck. Moran had told his team at halftime that soccer is not fair, it owes you nothing. He spoke in reference to the fact that the Coogs had done well in most areas of the game but failed to hit the target. The effort is there, he suggested. Go get the goal.
But it was EHS that got close first, when Castillo lifted a promising try from the left corner two minutes in. later, the same busy bee ran onto a gargantuan 60-yard goal kick from the powerful Luevano but could not get into scoring position.
Then North took a swipe at the lead as Saenz rolled an excellent thru ball into the box, only to have Martinez and Co. thwart the chance. Back upfield, holding mid Angel Garcia of North was starting to rule the roost in front of the Coog D. One could tell he was hurting, from a lingering injury, but Garcia worked like a trojan Tuesday, starting plays with sharp passes and sliding into tackles without hesitation. That kid was an Old School hard man!
So was Tovar of EHS, who located a bouncing ball and smacked it, head to grass, twice on his way to a goal-scoring opportunity; that superb display of skill almost paid off with the first tally. Later Tovar slipped a looping ball into the goal area but the North D was ready for it.
The EHS surge continued with another run into the 18-yard box, and this time it was rugged Angel Herrera sliding into a crunching tackle block to deny the ‘Cats.
That’s the way this game went, a death struggle on all counts, with a probable seeding on the line; as we said last week, one wants the 2 rather than the 3, if it can be had.
With 21 minutes left, North got back on it with an impressive chance as Edward Mejia beat his man around and toward the goal but the ‘Cats closed down and forced a free kick; this was saved up high by a leaping Luevano, and it had 1-0 written all over it until he panthered up to grab it.
As so often happens, one door closes and another opens. Directly after North nearly plunked the twines, EHS roared back downfield and did so. On a long free kick 25 yards out on the right, Perez got there first and when the ball hit the ground he clipped it to the former goalkeeper Garza, who took his chance well for the 1-0 advantage at 18:38.
Now the pressure was on, and North responded with a vengeance, piloting into the attacking third intent on the equalizer. Saenz ran past two defenders for a rolling shot on target but EHS countered, Garza narrowly missing; it’s the chance you take, throwing it forward and trying to score, and the ‘Cats have the wheels to make you pay.
The Coogs were patient in a hurry and Saenz nearly got them level, but a key defensive play from Kayden Moncivais stopped his foray at the four-minute mark. North was to get a corner soon after, which Herrera headed to the keeper, and at the end, Garcia of EHS carried out of his own half to send the ball to final safety.After the win, the EHS coaches praised their kids for the good football work and reminded them to do the same solid job in the classroom. With the playoffs on the way, no side can afford a grade slipup, especially against the perennially pesky clubs from 32-6A. Both the rivals are in the Dance, seeding to be determined. And Tuesday they battled like warriors for 80 minutes, showing that this season they might just be able to carve out some postseason glory when it’s all said and done.