February 27, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The coach was seeking a signature effort from the Lady Cougars, the kind of physical, all-out grind that she and her teammates perennially provided during her time as a player for her alma mater. And Friday night at The Stadium, Marianna Watson got a reprise of the Old School vibe as her North girls scored a tremendous upset over Vela. It was a magnificent and gutsy performance from a side that stood fifth in the District 31-6A table heading in, a notch outside the playoff seeds as the second half of the slate heats up.
With intermittent rain falling on a bone-chilling 40-degree night, North toughened up against the highly skilled Lady SaberCats, getting an equalizer from Thunderfoot senior Nana Gonzalez from 40 yards out midway through the first half. After that it was time to dig in and keep the fleet fliers from Vela out of the box, which Watson’s kids did well, especially the hustling Yajaira Hernandez.
At the end, penalty kicks were the drill, and North is always a safe bet there with nimble Belen Santana in goal. After the Lady Coogs snaked two points out of the match with a bitter rival, the rookie coach was fired up.
“That was exciting!” she exclaimed, after Santana had saved two Vela tries and seen her teammates convert two for the result. “We had our moments tonight, we could have won it, really. It was going to boil down to who was tougher, and I told the girls that traditionally, North is.
“I wanted them to feel what I used to feel when I was a player for Cougars, that we were going to leave it all on the field, give it everything. I wanted them to play like they wanted it bad, and tonight they did that. Play hard, play with all heart. This was a great game for us and I think it will propel us forward with some more confidence.”
On the other side of the Flores pitch, Vela manager Americo Cortez advanced into Friday with a slew of injuries to deal with, though the Lady Sabes are a strong second in the league right now behind pace-setter Juarez-Lincoln. Now in his fifth season as girls’ boss, Cortez has had to chop and change regularly in the past few weeks, and against North, senior Jalaina Carrillo was out along with the fulcrum, junior midfielder Natalia Cortez. Still, this roster is full of excellent players, and despite training room issues, Vela has been among the league’s best performers all season.
As the girls warmed up in letterman jackets, hoodies, beanies, and the occasional blanket thrown over shoulders for good measure, Cortez was ready to get stuck in.
“Stay warm, let’s go!” he hollered as the Lady Sabes huddled together while training and running, the boys’ match winding up on the field. “Hey, get going, dale gas!”
The positive he can take from the spate of hurts is the chance to see some youngsters develop, and Cortez said that a couple of them have really impressed him lately.
“We’ve got four freshmen in there tonight, so we’ll see how they do,” he mused, noting that newcomer Alyssandra Santivanez – who scored for the club Tuesday against La Joya – has exhibited ample toughness and skill so far.
He also said that junior Crysyal Palma has stepped up her leadership and production, after injuries to classmates Nayla Pena and Alayna Rodriguez up front have forced her to do so.
“If we can just get healthy, I like our chances to compete in the playoffs,” Cortez emphasized. “Ladies! On the jog, on the jog!”
OLD FRIENDS MEET AGAIN
The rain, which had been steadily cascading down in misty, diagonal sheets for much of the boys’ game, held off a bit as the girls got started. North had the first foray as wiry and athletic senior Trinity Ochoa rolled downfield to threaten goal, only to be cut off by Vela’s hard-nosed freshman center back Alma Gutierrez. With veteran defender Bailey Gonzalez also having been on the shelf intermittently, Gutierrez has had to really push it; against North, youngster Bianca Cardenas and senior Abby Carrizales were the fullbacks on D, Amadee Garza joining Gutierrez in the middle of a back four.
On the left wing was slim, elusive Victoria Cardenas, and she now exploited the North defense with a fine run deep into the attacking third. Once there, Cardenas rolled a slick, well-weighted pass inside to a romping Rodriguez, who slammed the ball into the net just three minutes into the action.
For a side that had scored 33 goals in 10 previous league tries, this was par for the course. But it would end up being the only Lady Sabe scratch of the night, surprisingly.
Rodriguez and Pena kept the pressure on after the goal with the former getting close on 34 minutes. Palma came up to get a head on a set piece and Rodriguez did the same, but the Lady Coogs were stiffening. Easy to do on a super cold night.
Again it was Cardenas on the left, cruising into the box but meeting Hernandez and keeper Santana there at the same juncture for a pileup, narrowly missing putting a chance on goal.
This was the pattern for the opening stretch of play, the Lady Sabes pushing forward and stressing the Lady Coog D. The wet conditions, and the absence of primetime playmaker Cortez, meant that Vela had a hard time finding the last pass to create a high-percentage shot.
Watson’s defense also had something to say about that, as the game wore on. Hernandez was everywhere Friday, fighting for possession in midfield, tracking back to defend, and generally leading her side like a senior star. What a workhorse she is.
Still, Vela came forward trying to double the advantage, as Rodriguez poked a decent pass to Cardenas. On a subsequent free kick from Santivanez, Santana came good with the catch and then freshman Frida Moralez cleared away a Lady Sabe shot. Vela had its opportunities in the first half, but many were scuffed, slippery-sliced in the rain, or simply overeager and off target.
At the 23-minute mark, Gonzalez lined up a restart from the 40-yard line and sent a mortar shot wailing for the Vela goal. The keeper for the Blue and Black got there in solid shape but the soggy, heavy ball skidded through her hands into the net for the leveling score. Nana!
On came North, full of energy, and it took a mammoth header clearance from Gutierrez off a bomb of a free kick to turn away the Lady Coogs. As North gained steam, Vela was having to entrench backward, and to compete with this offensive powerhouse, one has to try and keep the ball off Vela toes. The Lady Coogs were doing it, and now came calling with soph Sherlynn Rojas getting into the area before being stopped.
The Lady Sabes quick-countered with Pena and Rodriguez hammering away, and the latter earned a free kick after taking a lick from Hernandez of North. Santana made the catch to end the threat, and then Deyanara Hernandez of the Old Gold started to boss the night. She was in the midsection with the ball for much of the final 20 minutes, slaloming through defenders and trying to get goalbound. She created a try for Gonzalez, who skied one wide right, on eight minutes, and Ochoa later had a sniff from close range, which was blocked.
Santana had to dive to save from Rodriguez late in the half, and in the last significant moments of the first, North was again on the doorstep after Vela botched a clearance, ushering in an instant of madness with the ball pin-balling around until netminder Julissa Echeverria could corral it for the Lady Sabes.
After a wild and wooly half, the teams rested, and Vela – having been in the fieldhouse blanketing out, regrouping – were a tad late in making it out for the second half whistle. Once they got out there, though, the Lady Sabes were determined to break the deadlock and continue their pursuit of Juarez-Lincoln, a testy and tough side which held a 4-point lead as the night began. The Lady Huskies defeated Vela 1-0 when the two met in first half action, as Vela got the most shots, Lincoln the goal off a set piece.
Pena continued to work well in the middle, turning and looking for shots, but Hernandez and Gonzalez seemed to anticipate that, and folded in accordingly. North’s defense was busy and bothered Friday, but it came through with a superb performance. Soon another Santivanez free kick caromed off a defender and slithered to goal, but the agile Santana was ready for it.
It was a stalemate for much of the half as the sides lost a little intensity midway home, partly due to the weather but also owing to the pounding they were putting on each other. Almost every kid on each side was involved in a collision or two, and there were some monumental clashes. For example, 9th-grader Gutierrez, a muscular prospect, will always remember the smashes she took part in with North’s Gonzalez, who has been dishing out licks for four seasons now. Two rams on the mountaintop.
On 10 minutes, Moralez of North made a vital defensive strip of a Vela player in the corner, coming away with the ball. Many such unsung hands for the Lady Coogs had their show plays, including freshman Jade Ortiz and junior Lali Herrera. Herrera came up with a key intervention to stymie a promising move from Palma and then at the other end Vela’s Gutierrez banged away a North corner with another header.
This was just like the North-Vela scraps of old, and there looked to be PKs in the crystal ball. Gonzalez made sure of that with a well-timed tackle at the top of the 18-yard box, and the match had run its treacherous course, 1-1.
Following the game, the Lady Coogs sang “Happy Birthday” to Santana, after the miracle maker had given a team gift in the crease. She slid to her left to deny the initial PK from Vela, and Y. Hernandez slotted hers home. Next, the Lady Sabes skied out, right, whereupon Gonzalez boomed her attempt through the keeper’s hands for a 2-0 lead. Vela looked in trouble but North went off the bar and then high over, Lady Sabe Pena finding the left side of the net for a score. But when Vela missed its fifth kick, it handed two points to North, which is in a real war with city mates EHS and Econ to gain entry into the postseason.
Having come up short in two matches against the upsurging Lady Jags and once to EHS, Watson’s gang will have to take out the Lady Bobcats when they meet again. They have now split with Vela, obviously.
“This is how we play!” the coach yelled to her happy girls. “We play with heart, and we want the ball. Now, we have other games coming up, and they’re yours … if you want them!”
Judging by the yeoman’s work the Lady Coogs put in against an excellent Vela group Friday, the answer will probably be – whatever the eventual results – a resounding yes.