February 20, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for Game Photos
Though afterward they jumped around and hooted and hollered, wide-eyed and joyous, they were not in the least surprised. After having played a man down for the last 20 minutes but not given North very many chances on goal, the Lady Jags then finished the night at home with a penalty kicks victory over the Lady Cougars. The slugfest of a match was goalless and ended with Econ picking up two points, keeping Coach Robert Garcia’s side in a playoff spot as the second half of the 31-6A season kicked off Friday.
The Lady Jags, who are trying to get back into the playoffs for the first time since their current seniors were in middle school, were unflappable the whole way, hanging in there and taking the fight to North, which sits fifth now after suffering a sweep against Econ this season. Even when a red card reduced the onfield group to 10, Garcia’s girls never blinked, and in fact, ended up with the lion’s share of possession after the potential disaster. That isn’t the way football usually goes but for the Orange in 2022, it is.
“We knew we had it, even after that,” said senior midfield leader Neyda Garcia, who was strong and active all 80 minutes. “I knew we were strong enough; we were really communicating and the seniors did well. The freshmen we have also helped out. It was a rough game but hey, we are both fighting for the playoffs, so you knew it was going to be like that.”
And in truth, this match was a pounder from the get-go, short on nuance and fancy skills, long on desire and licks. The physical nature of the game has generally appealed to both sides, traditionally. For the duration, it was collision after collision, with the Lady Cougars battling away against an equally eager Lady Jag crew. Econ had the better chances in both halves, coming close on no fewer than three occasions. And as stated, even when they went a man down, the Lady Jags kept the ball and advanced into the attacking third, narrowly missing a winning goal inside the final minutes.
In the penalty kicks session, keeper Jocelyn Maldonado, whose sister Jackie is the team’s striker and leading scorer, palmed away two Lady Coog tries to seal the victory.
The subtext here is that Garcia, who has been the coach at Econ for a decade and was an assistant at the school before that under current Juarez-Lincoln manager Victor Ramos, is set to retire at the end of the season. A long-time presence on the touchline out east, he says that this season is starting to look better, each week.
“Yes, of course, we are excited to be competing for a playoff spot because frankly it’s been a while for us,” said the affable Garcia, who also never fails to speak truth about his side, good or not so. “I think there is more continuity this season, we have the same girls, game in, game out, and that hasn’t been the case the last few years. These girls have played together in some offseason leagues and they know each other well. And that has helped us be more consistent so far.”
Econ came into the opening bout of the 31-6A second half having won five of eight matches in the first section, and Friday was able to repeat the win secured against North to start it all. Even though the Lady Jags failed to record all three points, the manager’s plan is unfolding well.
“We knew that if we were going to have a chance, we had to beat one of the good teams at least once,” he said. “That, and we have to make sure we take care of the games that we consider winnable. So far, we’ve done these things and we are happy to be where we’re at, as far as the standings.”
His girls know that this is the swan song for their beloved coach and seem to fight even harder with that knowledge in mind.
Maldonado, the dogged competitor up front, withstood what at first appeared to be a foot injury near the end of the first half, and later converted her penalty to help the team to victory. When she went down, she didn’t stay that way. The energetic Maldonado was right back up at the touchline after a spell on the bench, ready to go back in, though the whistle had gone to end the half.
“We’re playing well because we’re communicating out there,” she said, echoing the words of teammate Garcia. “Plus, we have all the words coach has told us, in our heads. He’s in our heart, too.”
Reyna Vazquez, a former defender playing up the pitch these days, agreed, praising the defensive effort against North and adding that the girls are together now, have been learning each other’s movements. During the night she made a series of slick passes to spring Maldonado free and also nailed her penalty with a swift left-footed blast.
Both the Econ athletes watched as Maldonado’s sister, goalkeeper Jocelyn, displayed cool and calm for a sophomore, putting it away.
“The girls were pumped up, you could tell,” said Coach Garcia, who between kicks during the extra session waved his arms vigorously to get the kids and fans more into the moment. He has always been a fiery character out there, exhorting his players to get after it and give everything they have. “It was a real good effort tonight, the process is starting to work, slowly but surely. I have told the girls about when we won district titles back in the day, and so they know what I want them to accomplish. Tonight I felt like we had more chances than the other team, we played very well, and the girls are starting to have more confidence with every game.”
THIS ONE COUNTS A TON
Econ has been particularly stingy on defense this season, and in the last five games of the first half registered four clean sheets. The offense managed one goal in each of the four wins they recorded during that stretch. One of the reasons for this rock-hard defensive showing is the midfield, where veteran Yami Medellin has been a consistent force. Against the Lady Coogs, partner Stephanie Moreno was peppy and effective from the start, winning loose balls and heading some away with no hesitation.
Last year, when the side flirted with a postseason space before fading, it was the aggressive Audrey Reyes in that role, and Moreno – wearing the same No. 4 shirt – appears a worthy replacement. She roared up to deliver a great early pass into the box, but the Lady Jags were offside.
North, which came in on 12 points with three wins (one by PK) and two penalty defeats, seemed bothered by the constant contact in the midsection. But senior Deyanara Hernandez gave a boost when she hopped in to steal a ball and then played 1-2 with wing Trinity Ochoa, nearly creating a chance 10 minutes in.
At 25:40 Moreno fashioned a shot on goal but Sam Aguilar of North ran down on the counter to roll a try to the keeper. Garcia of the Lady Jags then made a timely intervention after Ochoa and Hernandez again matriculated downfield into range. Econ newcomer Denise Herrera – just a freshman but gifted with impressive strength and a nonstop motor – was a very gritty performer Friday, playing to a corner midway through the half that Medellin took a swipe at, to no avail.
Herrera then went shoulder to shoulder with rugged senior Yajaira Hernandez of North, and this was a recurring theme, girls smashing each other around, scrapping for the 50-50 ball, and generally letting caution go into the wind. With 14 minutes left in a scoreless first, Moreno maneuvered into view of goal, only to be denied by North minder Belen Santana. Back upfield, Econ was getting spirited play from Desiree Martinez and freshman Genesis Mendoza in back, and the Lady Jags had probably been slightly the better side thus far.
But North kept working, producing a couple of decent forays into the box, though Martinez made a key steal to end one such threat. Vazquez then fed Herrera, who had a prime shot blocked right in front, and later Econ motored down after a Lady Coog surge to earn a corner, which Anahi Luna got a head on as the half came to a close.
WHO WILL BREAK THROUGH?
The moon was near and tangerine, almost 3D on Friday, and perhaps there would be some mystery and beauty in the second 40 minutes. It was a chilly, windless evening, and the only thing missing for this vital Rivalry Match was the once familiar smells of the famous Econ Barbecue Stand, which has been dormant in recent times due to COVID. Talk about a bummer. On chilly nights one could always count on a tasty taco, a bit of banter, and a chance to get warm around the fire during the break. Some day.
Maldonado, none the worse for wear after the injury scare, got back on her horse to start it, racing through the defense to get close. But the North kids were equal to the challenge. An N. Garcia free kick from 30 yards out did not scratch and then at the other end, D. Hernandez slammed a dangerous volley over the bar five minutes into the half.
Quickly, it was the stocky and relentless Maldonado off to the races, clean in on goal, but her effort skied over the bar at 34 minutes. Best chance of the match, there.
When the Lady Coogs sent a long ball into the Econ half, Moreno was there with her head to clobber it back over the midline, a very impressive feat. When the Lady Coogs got a tremendous run from D. Hernandez on the left side, Mayte Ruiz of the Orange popped up in the corner to muscle her way to a clearance.
On offense, Econ again got combo play from Maldonado and Vazquez on the left, the latter executing an excellent switch of play to the right side, resulting in an attempt on goal by Diana Soto on 26 minutes.
This was the pattern, the Lady Jags growing into the game and beginning to threaten, North somewhat sloppy in ball control and relying on the undeniable talents of senior Ariana “Nana” Gonzalez to bail the side out. Moreno again made an impact with a side-footed lefty try at Santana’s net and then the match turned. Physicality and then some by Econ induced the official to give two quick yellow cards, resulting in the dreaded red. Down to 10. Almost 20 minutes to go. How would Garcia’s gang respond?
The Lady Coogs bounced to a goal catch and then won a corner shortly thereafter. But the man-advantage never translated into percentage chances for the visitor, as the Lady Jags acted like nothing red had happened. Moreno and Herrera turned in sharp defensive stops and gradually the Orange began to beat the odds and tilt the field to their advantage.
Herrera bounced a free kick to goal and on defense, Mendoza made a smart play, firing a pass back to Martinez instead of trying to get the ball upfield. This allowed the defense to reset and the forwards to track back and help restart the play, illustrating what the girls and their coach had said: Econ has been together for a while, the players have learned each other’s tendencies, and trust each other to be where they’re supposed to be, do what they have to. While it is not a roster full of dominant athletes of the caliber of a Krysta Armstrong (Old School legend), it is a group that does the job, works hard, and displays team cohesion.
When Maldonado made a rush with the ball, Gonzalez of North was there to cut her out with seven minutes left. Then a mad scramble in the goal mouth following a home side corner could have been turned in by Econ no less than three times. But Coach Marianna Watson’s gang held the line for a game-saving sequence.
Just when it looked like nil-nil and penalties, Econ got a Huge Break on a North foul in the box. But with 4:40 to go, Santana saved the spot kick to keep the Lady Jags off the board. Gonzalez was the workhorse Friday, and she cleared two more decent enemy opportunities away to clinch the draw.
Each rival slotted home the first penalty but then North rolled wide left, only to heave a sigh of relief when the second kicker for Econ caromed her offering off the bar. J. Maldonado then came up with a save to her right and Vazquez blasted her shot into the net, up high left for a 2-1 lead. Ochoa converted her try well to the left and Herrera boinked hers off the bar, but IN, to establish a 3-2 Lady Jag lead. When Maldonado denied the try for tie, it was head for the pileup to celebrate.
This may be the last go-around for Garcia, who’s been one of the constants on the city coaching scene for so long. He is soon going to be able to fish all he wants, along with traveling to San Antonio to catch the meets of his daughter, Didi, who will become a college track athlete up there in the fall. But for now, he’s doing what he has always done, fighting the good fight at the head of a gutty bunch of gals who relish the underdog role, will stand toe to toe with any team around, and are intent on making this campaign one to remember for the Lady Jags and their leader.