January 25, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It was kind of a double homecoming for her Tuesday, filled with moments of jubilation, some of frustration, and the eventual result of undaunted determination.
As Marianna Watson led her Lady Cougars onto the pitch at the Stadium, she was at the front of the soccer team, just as she had once rallied behind the venerable Coach Danny Valdez. Now the head coach of her alma mater, Watson carries many memories of playing for North during its glory days of a decade past. And she also has mental portraits of a more recent vintage, of her time as an assistant under Americo Cortez at Vela, whose awesome side, btw, was the opponent trotting around the turf waiting for the 31-6A collision of implacable City Rivals.
One could say that Watson, still so youthful as to seem almost back in her playing days (hard elbows and mean hips, a real battler), was surrounded by multiple temporal worlds; the past, the recent past, and the eternal present, this latter entity represented by her ever-present father, a loud and proud North supporter who is never shy about voicing his loyalties at each match.
This was the situation Tuesday, and the rest of the story was, North was down a few kids from COVID, including perhaps the side’s most important cog, the wonderful Dayanara Hernandez, among others. Not exactly the optimum scenario for a program that is seeking to bump it up a notch in achievement after a series of decent if unspectacular seasons.
Luckily, Watson goes to the field these days sidekicked by a seasoned pro in Raul McCallum, who was there on site back in the day as trusted assistant for Valdez, when Watson was doing her thing as a player. Together, those two matched wits with the Lady SaberCats Tuesday, and tucked away some good lessons going forward, ideas they think will enable North to make noise in the race for the ring. Anything else, nope, these coaches are winners and they are intent on making this latest Lady Coog edition after the program image.
And what lessons were imparted on a night when Vela consistently touch-touched the ball with velvet steel, attacked with purpose and relish, and came very close to five or six goals, in the end settling for two in a clean sheet result?
Watson knows she can count on Yajaira Hernandez, the veteran of many battles, to bust a gut the whole way, marshaling the midfield now after three superb seasons on defense. Against the skilled and poised Vela machine, Hernandez turned in a fantastic shift, her work rate was ridiculous, and she did her best to try and connect the lines.
The new North boss, who joins the marvel Marah Guzman of the North hoops team in a group of promising new native mentors on the scene, also knows that in Nana Gonzalez, she has a tough kid, someone who will tackle and chase, and send booming balls off restarts far down into the mists of the soccer nights. She’s been around, will crack ye.
In keeper Belen Santana, the coaches understand what they will get, and it is tremendous agility and moxie. One of the reasons Vela did not manage more than a duo of goals is down to the absolutely acrobatic play of Santana, who dived left and right for a bevy of impressive saves; she is also among the strongest punters in the Valley.
Those are the known quantities, and with D. Hernandez soon to return, adding her effective offensive abilities to the mix, North will shore up the issues it had Tuesday with linkup mesh and timing. They were seldom able to maintain possession past a few touches and that will improve when the Hernandez pair is back together.
The rest of the gang offers intriguing possibilities, as on defense, a couple of kids stood out for their tenacity. In sophomore Ruby Torres and senior Alessandra Garcia, Watson has a duo that went toe to toe with the talented striker-and-wing group of the Lady SaberCats, making several saves, blocks, and interventions. Keeping an eye/body on versatile midfielder Crystal Palma, aggressive and polished forward Nayla Pena and smooth as silk middie Natalia Cortez is no easy task, and yet the North D did a pretty decent job of containing them, all told. Lady Coogs will always be physical, it’s in the DNA.
Still, truthfully, Vela was the superior side in this one, playing with an elegance that must have pleased Cortez to no end. If there was a mild weakness Tuesday for them, it was perhaps the propensity for occasionally settling for shots from long range, eschewing the One Last Pass to set up a more high-percentage attempt on goal. But really, when you’re as fine on the ball as the Lady Sabes, and are as well-drilled as they are, as skillful, you almost have to take shots when they come available. They’re going to go in sometimes, bottom line.
Suffice to say that Cortez’ gang has the quality goods to make up for the graduation loss of a couple of program legends (no names necessary), and the new kids on the Vela block have already served notice that the past is the past: this is their time.
Coming into the season, the Vela coach penciled in Bailey Gonzalez at right back, and rightfully so, as she has blossomed into a sure bet, consistent and dependable on the ball, always there when you need her, with a little bit of pop-ya in her game, which never hurts … unless you’re a left wing trying to get into the area, that is.
The wild card for this potential re-repeat champ is in back along with Gonzalez. She’s named Alma Gutierrez, she’s a sophomore, No. 4. And erbody bedda look out: she is legit! This newcomer has skills, smarts, and extremely strong legs, in stature reminding one of former North standout Destiny Rodriguez, a gal that Watson can tell you about, or Coach Mac.
Gutierrez was on the spot for the rare instances when North was able to pry the ball away from the yo-yo master Cortez, and every time she was called upon, the Vela center back was perfect with a tackle or step-in. Using her strength and sometimes guile, Gutierrez also exhibited an excellent head on the ball, and honestly, some girls spend years trying to be brave enough to do it. In the first half Tuesday, as the Blue and Black commanded the pitch, Gutierrez headed the ball five times, never randomly, always with a purpose and destination. Girl has it.
HOW THE MATCH WENT
The Lady Sabes, on the other hand, were not to be headed, fighting through the gritty North defense for their goals eventually. Cortez had begun the night in his estimable way, challenging his kids to a fight.
“Who’s excited to play?” he exclaimed moments before the kickoff. “Hey, this is North, here it is, this is a Rivalry Game!”
After some years of Troubles with the Lady Cougars, Vela (now 2-0 in district) happily flipped the script last season on its way to the title, a year after a penalty kicks deal against North – along with COVID – robbed the program of an outright crown. Still, a share there and a trophy in 2021, and Cortez is ready for his club to take the next title as well. Maybe go three-deep in the playoffs like last year, time will tell.
But against North, the enduring, eternal and bitter rival, the Lady Sabes got hold early and never let up. Pena, so agile and strong for a slim kid, stole one right off the bat and roared downfield, left side. Soon N. Cortez was doing her magician work in the midfield, while winger Abby Carrizales impressed with her slick one-touch passing, something she has gotten better at each season. Cortez and Pena, passing effortlessly like soccer soulmates on the same wavelength, produced some chances with the kind of ping-ping passing that the coach demands. A Cortez free kick nestled softly into the gloves of Santana of North, surely one of the best keepers in the RGV.
When the uber-intense Palma combined with Carrizales and she with rampaging junior Alayna Rodriguez, Vela got close again, carving up the D until Xitlalic “Lali” Herrera came to the rescue for North; she is, besides being beautifully named, a hard customer with some real punch as a stopper.
A few times, North was able to break, but it came to naught, partially because Cortez has become more adept on defense. Although she is the definite shaman firestarter for the offense, Nat is not worried about contact these days; time and again she warred with the North mids to regain possession before any serious business got to the Vela back.
The game went like that, the Lady Sabes on the march and creating ample chances, Santana and the defense coming up to the bar. At the 17-minute mark of the first half, Pena deked her way in on goal, nearly scoring, Santana deflecting the effort outward and up. Pena almost got on a head on the instant ricochet in a fabulous moment of athleticism.
It was the best chance so far among many, but still North did not buckle. Vela’s Rodriguez kept pounding, bucking through defenders like a wild mustang, and got close a few times, but Santana made another great save on a Palma shot. And then a corner.
You will have to ask Palma and the super soph Gutierrez who plinked the header in off the set piece, both kids having risen like salmon upstream to arrive at Cortez’ tantalizing offering at about the same instant. After the net was breached, both girls celebrated well enough but also looked at each other for a second … like, “Was that you? Or Me?” No matter, 1-nil to Vela and as they say in the Premier League, it was no less than they deserved after a dominant 31 minutes of work.
Their blood up, the Lady Sabes kept coming, whipping the ball around with pizazz and romping into the attacking third. But Torres and Garcia for the Lady Coogs seemed to welcome this, re-setting to try and keep the champs out. Garcia stepped in with malice to deny Rodriguez close to the end of the half, and on the sideline, Watson pumped her fist.
Hernandez of North was busy as the second half dawned, attempting to be the bridge between the gallant stoppers and the strikers. But she also was able to track back in a blur to stop a Vela foray. Miles covered in the match? Lots.
Pena, also a well-traveled sort who never seems to get tired (remind you of any mid/forward from the recent, storied past?), whacked a vicious whip at 32 minutes of the second, only to see Santana go all horizontal to parry the wicked thing away. Next, the North keeper watched as teammate Garcia, at the last minute, denied Palma, after the junior Vela star had worked around a pair of defenders with ballet and boxing both. Beautiful (filthy) move.
Then it was Gutierrez again, showing her range in racing out wide to intercept a pass. Sound like some few someones of defensive note from the past? No names, please, it’s 2022. But you know.
At this point, as stated, Vela was getting so open so frequently, that the temptation of chancing the sublime started to creep in. Pena turned on a dime and fired from 20 yards, Cortez got a try off after a masterclass of collaborative passing from Pena-to-Palma-back to-Pena; when those kids are on, it’s on. Such poise on the ball.
Finish. With 19 minutes left, Palma put the babe to bed with a rocket of a goal for the lead that held up. To that point, though North had registered just a few isolated sights of goal, Vela was still (secretly) uneasy, the history between these two adversaries being what it has been. Pena was to net once more, with a neat side-foot finish from right back left, only to be whistled for offside. One of the few hiccups from a pageant of footballing excellence starring Vela. Friday brings a major rockfest at the Stadium, against EHS, and that one will be deadly good.
After this one was done, Watson was boom, into motivation mode, lauding her girls for the many things they excelled at Tuesday, chiding them constructively for the items she wishes to be corrected. It had been a steep road against a top-flight opponent, on the heels of a 1-0 loss to a vastly improved Econ side Monday. But rather than lament the fact that due to COVID her squad had been forced to play back-to-back matches – against a more rested foe, missing some starters to boot – Watson channeled her inner Valdez with some tough love. As a player she would knock your block off or pick a pass with flair. As a head coach it remains to be seen what her eventual style will be. But rest assured: she loves the game, knows the drill, and will put nose to the grindstone in helping the Lady Coogs process, correct, and progress. By the time the initial campaign is in the books at her old school, she will no doubt have molded the North engine into effective, dangerous working order. Count on it.