March 2, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
It was not the most technically proficient or efficient match of the season, but it might have been the most intense, which makes sense given what was at stake as North took on EHS Tuesday at EHS. Though both rivals knew they were already assured to be in the playoffs no matter what, second place was the low-hanging fruit, meaning a slightly more doable postseason assignment in bi-district. Maybe.
The first encounter had yielded a hard-fought nil-nil draw earlier in the slate, and the rematch was going to be more of the same: evenly matched clubs brawling it out for the right to move toward the two seed. Vela, enjoying the most golden regular season run in school history, has clinched the district title with a week to go.
There were then no surprises after 80 minutes of toil. The teams ended deadlocked, as Deyanara Hernandez’ first-half goal for North was equaled later in the period by a memorable set-piece strike from Miriela “Titi” Munoz of EHS. And as anticipated by some, the rowdy supporters were eventually asked to leave the stands, this coming in the second half as the girls battled desperately for the upper hand and their rooters became equally boisterous.
In between the signal points of the affair, there were a few surprises, though. The Lady Cougars, with the best defense in the district and maybe the Valley, became more offensively oriented than normal, putting the Lady Bobcats on notice that they would be attacking the goal consistently. And EHS – doing what only one other club has done against North this league year besides Vela – scored a goal against the Blue and Gold and came very close on a number of other occasions.
The Lady Bobcats really could have used another tally, because though they forged a 3-point lead over their foe based on the draw, they’ve got just one game left, Meanwhile, North has yet to catch up to the majority of the league sides, having seen two matches against Juarez-Lincoln postponed; this means that the Lady Coogs have three chances to outdistance EHS for the second spot. A draw Tuesday was thus an infinitely better result for them.
GETTING AFTER IT
This was a night of superb mano a mano duels at each end of the pitch. For EHS, the obstacle was the defensive mastery of central defender Lizzy Loera, the four-year North standout. But the Lady Coogs would have as much hell when they attacked, based on the quickness and grit of lean and mean junior Melo Munoz, anchoring the EHS backline as always. The keepers, senior Kristen Salinas of EHS and sophomore Belen Santana, are top shelf all the way.
In between, the action would be constantly fierce, albeit with stretches of kick-around pinball with few style points and many quick gifts of possession.
Just two minutes in, Abby Martinez of EHS got off a shot from the left flank, signaling a fecund night of tries. North’s first real foray produced a flash goal, as Hernandez – who prowled the box all night pushing for space – took advantage of a bad giveaway by the EHS D to get a 1-on-1 with Salinas, which the former won, giving North the very early lead at 35:58.
So much for a reprise of the scoreless draw of the first round. Maybe this would be a goalfest …
Seeking to make it so, the Sanchez Sisters then got into gear, as senior Leah played her freshman pal Bethany in, shortly after the shocker goal. North held the line, however, and came right back with Hernandez catching off the chest, controlling, and passing to speedy Sam Aguilar, who got a fair shot away.
EHS held them out and started to go about finding a way back in. One of the stellar performers for the Lady Bobcats Tuesday was Sarah Garcia, a quicksilver senior who is also pretty tough. She had a fine evening, sending strong balls into the attacking third and tracking back to defend against Hernandez and the rest of the North front force.
EHS produced its best chance to date at the 27-minute mark of the first as Bethany Sanchez got a head on a free kick and Leah finagled into the box before being smothered by Loera and rock-ribbed Brenda Ricardez.
Not to be outdone, the Lady Coogs soon got another shot, this time as Hernandez ran past a defender and appeared ready to double the lead. But Melo Munoz, so conditioned and trained, provided vital cover to snuff out the chance.
The back and forth continued, the midfields having real trouble finding rhythm. Then EHS earned a corner kick, worked the short version, and the layoff to Munoz resulted in a prodigious blast that sailed past the outstretched arms of the North keeper, tying the match at one with 23:36 left. Back at the other end, Salinas erupted.
“It’s zero, zero, it’s our game, let’s go Bobcats!!” screamed the EHS net tender as the teams lined back up to restart.
Five minutes on, the Sanchez Sisters were at it again, but with the agile Loera back there, it was going to be rough sledding. Loera is one of those kids who hasn’t lost an ounce of fitness during the pandemic, the prominent counterparts for the Lady ‘Cats on that count being the Munoz Gals. It’s just a fact that around the Valley, the lack of practice time has dealt a blow to shape, wind, and fitness for a percentage of the kids. But some of them have obviously made the most of a physically daunting situation. They’ve worked extra.
Hernandez came down for a North try with 11 minutes left and Garcia did the same for the Lady ‘Cats. As stated, it was not a banner night for the defensive midfields of the two rivals, and the shots were there for 80 minutes.
North nearly eased ahead at eight minutes but Salinas made a dive for a dangerous loose ball and got it; on the next sequence Melo headed one away as the Lady Coogs continued to pressure the goal mouth. Forget about sitting back and picking a counter; North straight up went for it Tuesday.
The second half began with turnover woes and spotty play, somewhat to be expected because of the frantic pace the girls had kept up in the first 40 minutes. North settled down well enough to get a nice combo from Hernandez to Ricardez that netted but was ruled out, offside. The next Lady Coog try came off a lofted shot from Trinity Ochoa midway through the half.
At this stage, EHS brought defender Angie Molina up front, a move the club has been successful with in recent weeks, and she produced some promising runs. Leah Sanchez continued to work and work. But with the immovable object of Loera looming, a second goal was going to have to be genius. Even when Sanchez beat her on one sequence, Loera had the guile to circle back and recover smartly to stamp out the fire. She and Ricardez were all over L. Sanchez like a pair of a Capris during this match.
North enjoyed the run of play for much of the half, as indicated by a strong loft of a shot from Nana Gonzalez at 18 minutes. But then Sanchez got past Loera to slam a tremendous centering ball from the right corner. She delivered no fewer than three laser-like crosses in the second half, but each time, runners did not materialize in the channels to take advantage.
Garcia of EHS then took off on a scintillating run, tapping the ball forward and using her considerable pace to go right with it. Fifty yards later, the chance petered out in front of goal, but the roar from the sidelines was memorable. Go, Sarah!!
Late in the game, one girl from each group was summoned by the official, who suggested that after a particularly contentious scrum, they figuratively shake hands and start again. This, they did, and to their credit: it was a slugfest, bitterly fought, but without any real malice, one judges.
As the clock ticked away, Sanchez steamed into the corner again and sent a bullet to the box, again with no oncoming help. If the Lady Bobcats had a weakness Tuesday, it was the inability to offer some assistance in the right places and at the right times to make hay out of the senior’s offerings.
With the draw in the offing, each side had more blows to throw. Janelle Saenz, the do-it-all veteran for North, clipped a tantalizing one into the area but once again, Munoz was equal to the challenge. Leah Sanchez got off an attempt after a feed from her sibling, but it went south at 3:30. T. Munoz took a late free kick that sailed right and wide and for the clincher, the Lady Coogs’ Ricardez worked for a restart at one minute. But Molina and T. Munoz cleared the freebie away, and the result was assured.
This season, EHS and North are as suggested about on the same excellent level, a notch below the rolling thunder at Vela, admittedly, but definitely first-cabin sides who have given 160 minutes of hard Rivalry work to their coaches and fans. One can bet that those kids went home Tuesday night and sat for a long time in a hot bath, nursing bumps and bruises and just breathing. Because they earned it.
What a battle.