January 8, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here select tournament photos

MISSION – Anyone seeking a sneak peek at what the District 31-6A boys’ football race will be like could have come to Citrus City over the weekend, because it was there that three of four city sides advanced to the money rounds of the Mission Tournament.

In an impressive show of talent but also endurance, North and EHS met in the final at Veterans Saturday, the Cougars coming out victorious in penalties after a scoreless match of 40 minutes. The Bobcats, who have suffered three losses this season in PKs, illustrated the endurance, contesting the final with just 13 players (two sub) after injuries and other absences cut their roster down the bare minimum. The Cougars, who have their own early season penchant (six 1-0 wins so far), had depth on their side but had to hustle to clinch the trophy.

The sides hit the first two penalties each but then a run of five straight misses led to the final blow, struck by North’s Jesus Martinez, clinching the title for Coach Elias Moran. Earlier in the shootout, EHS’s Kayden Moncivais, normally an outfield player, made a great save on a North PK, and he kept a regulation clean sheet as the Bobcat keeper: both regular goalies were unavailable for the final, along with three other starters, so the effort EHS made was pretty special. In the end, North got through, capping an outstanding run at the event which included a tense 1-0 victory over highly regarded P-SJ-A Memorial in the semifinal.

The Bobcats took care of McAllen sides MacHigh and Memorial to reach the top match, and appear to be solid favorites to contend for the 31-6A crown. Econ advanced to the quarters before being beaten by North, 2-0 Saturday, and made a decent showing at the tourney after a slow start. Vela, meanwhile, dropped out of the bracket without playing a match.

The competition at the Mission Tournament was solid, if not spectacular, with Laredo Alexander and Sharyland there, and it was the former that handed North its only loss of the event. Besides that blemish, the Cougars went through the bracket without allowing a goal, thanks to a rebuilt defense that looks every bit as excellent, potentially, as the one that helped Moran’s bunch to a playoff spot in 2020-21.

Having graduated the bulk of his back four, Moran now knows that in sophomore Kenneth Reyes, he has a fantastic defender who was particularly deadly in the semis against P-SJ-A Memorial. Tall and agile, Reyes ranged far and wide from center back, making challenges and tackles with real force and skill. He heads the ball with excellent precision and showed credible ball skills from out of the back. Moran said that Reyes reminds him of some of the great defenders of the past, including Azael de Leon, the bell cow of the program’s foray to the state final 8 five years ago. and if the newcomer can in time live up to that comparison, he will be a team leader for the next three seasons.

Another huge contributor to the club’s run to the title at Mission was Carlos Gonzalez, who has been a midfielder in the past but made himself well at home in the back for three days of success. Like Reyes, he has some height and was outstanding against the Jags and Bobcats, firing header clearances and cutting off would-be forwards on the run.

North, too, was down a goalkeeper as regular man Adrian Alvarez, district Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, is recovering from an injury. In his stead, freshman Erick Gonzalez stepped in and acquitted himself nicely, making a number of saves on the tourney’s last day of action.

Further up the pitch, the Cougars got good work from returner Anthony Flores, who has terrific quickness, and Jacob Roman, whose speedy runs down the right side ended with a number of searing crosses into the box during the tourney. Football receiver Jose Suares showed he is a multi-tasker, as it was his scintillating first half header that provided the winning margin against the Wolverines. As one would expect, he also gave some toughness to the gameplan, at times tracking back to put a hurting on opposing strikers. He put in a great shift in all three games Saturday, with an impressive work rate up and down the green. Those forward kids will help Moran go to battle in 31-6A minus leading scorer Axel Saenz, who graduated after a phenomenal senior campaign. His brother, Brandon, is a welcome addition to the team sheet this season, another rangy kid with ability who played well on the wing at Mission, offensively and defensively.

The Coogs can count on a few trusted veterans to hold things together in the middle, as feisty little Emiliano Nevarez is back to be a pain in the neck to foes in the midsection of the park, and Fernie Ortiz, a seasoned operator, also was very effective in the title run. They are joined by Francisco Roman, bro of Jacob, who is an elegant player wearing the No. 10 shirt, a la Neymar Jr.

All told, the Coogs look to be a dangerous side, as their 1-2 combo passing in diagonals helped them matriculate upfield with speed and direction, while the defense, with the athletic Reyes seeming to be many places at once, held down the fort time after time. Even in the final, as EHS gave a marvelous effort given its circumstances, North was not rattled. The Bobcats turned it on midway through the first period, with Cesar Tovar locking down the D from his right back role and the midfielders getting forward to challenge in transition. At times, Dilan Cazares of the ‘Cats got close to the net, and at one stage Ethan Garcia manufactured an eye-popping Cruyff Turn to get free near the 18-yard box, only to have Reyes and Co. snuff out the chance.

There were three yellow cards administered in the second half, which one comes to expect from City Rivalry Matches, district or not, as even missing firestarters Jerry Vidal and Miguel Solis, Coach Luis Cardenas’ side came forward with purpose. The Coogs regained the momentum in the early stages of the second half but EHS kept coming. It took a timely, if risky intervention by Reyes on a driving Bobcat attacker in the closing minutes to keep it nil-nil. Soon after, “Chino” Garza sent a promising free kick into the North area to no avail, and Ortiz got off a late shot on goal before the penalty session ensued. The PKs saw EHS sky over on kicks three and four, North missing two also, one on the save from the valiant Moncivais. But Martinez was true on the final boot, sending his teammates into the tourney winners’ dog pile and the enjoyment of the trophy soon after. A spirited way to end a strong run of football, with all three attending units showing promise for the coming league slate, which begins in earnest Jan. 18.

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