March 13, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Goalkeepers are often a breed apart, in a spatial sense – they spend the entire match by themselves, until they’re suddenly, unequivocally not – and also in a psychological way. No other player on the pitch has as much pressure, or undergoes such scrutiny, and even though the average keeper is put under such intense and torturous strain just two or three times a night, the pressure can be difficult to manage. All alone, man.
Having a trusty netminder, then, can make the difference, putting an average side over the top or dragging a potentially successful one into rack and ruin. That’s why North is now a favorite to clinch a playoff spot in District 31-6A.
Because the Lady Cougars have Belen Santana. And the other league sides do not.
It’s not to say that the Lady Coogs are bereft of outstanding field players, not in the least. In Arianna “Nana” Gonzalez, they’ve got a shifty, powerful midfielder with loads of experience. In Yajaira “Ya Ya” Hernandez they have an indefatigable hustler whose work rate is legendary. And they’ve also got a bunch of speed on the flanks, plus some dogged defenders who put in a credible shift time and time again.
But again. North has Belen Santana, and other teams do not.
As the Lady Coogs pushed on to 27 points with a 2-0 victory over visiting EHS Friday, evening the season series after EHS had taken the first in PKs, the Miracle Worker was on her mark at the right junctures, coming up with a handful of saves when the chips were on the mesa. The very best came late in the first half of a scoreless brawl, after Kathia Castillo of the Lady Bobcats ran deep left off a Titi Munoz throw. When Munoz got the ball back, she cracked a hammer of an effort from wide left. Santana, whose reflexes are phenomenal and anticipation unparalleled, sighted the shot and rose to her left, following the path of the ball as it headed toward the top corner, far post. Twisting in the air, the North savior got her right glove underneath the ball and palmed it up and away, like serving a pizza, for an amazing denial.
Think about the logistics of the half-ending sequence for a moment and you will understand just how special it was. Many goalies might have used their left hand to attack the shot but Santana, initially wrong-footed, recovered with a spark of ingenuity, and her reaction on the save was exquisite, not to mention timely. It was the kind of clutch intervention that has lifted Coach Marianna Watson’s crew so many times this season, and again, the kind of play that spells the difference between a W and a L. And between a playoff spot and an almost.
After the intermission, North managed a pair of goals: a cool penalty conversion by Hernandez on 28 minutes, after a hand ball infraction in the box on the Lady Bobcats; and a late-night gem from Ruby Torres, who drifted left to right in the area before cranking the insurance score with five minutes to go.
For the Lady Cougars, it was a marvelous result over their bitter foe, and with two matches remaining – against woeful P-SJ-A and excellent Juarez-Lincoln – Watson’s girls look like a safe bet for the postseason. EHS, meanwhile, remained stuck on 26 points, two ahead of Econ, which battled Vela valiantly Friday before going down, 1-0. The Lady ‘Cats, however, have just one league test to go, a bye followed by a match with the Lady Bears, and will almost surely end on 29 markers. The Lady Jags, at 24, have winnable tries to come versus middling Pharr North and average La Joya, meaning if that they can secure the full point total from those two, they’ll be in, ahead of EHS. Potentially third, actually, as they swept the season series with North.
On an exceedingly windy and cold evening (though dry, yay!), EHS took flight first, flying south with the Lady Coogs entrenched in defense. A free kick from sturdy Melo Munoz did not dent the North fortress, and neither did a corner by her sister, Santana making the catch on the second sequence.
Her defensive partners were sound from the start, as freshman Jade Ortiz, who was to produce a series of solid stops in the back, got in front of an EHS try eight minutes in. Fellow freshman Amily Rodriguez of EHS then won a free kick just outside the area after a North foul, but the boot off the restart launched over the goal when the wind carried it far into the forbidding night.
On 30 minutes, Titi Munoz scorched an absolute stinger from 15 yards out that Santana was able to corral, but EHS was surging, looking for the all-important opening salvo. Santana is not going to win a footrace, and she is not going to dunk the ball over the crossbar. But she does have infinitely dependable skills, uncanny reflexes, and a knack for knowing what is going to happen, and when.
She also benefits from the timing and hustle of Hernandez, who runs like the wind though it might not seem like it at first glance. The four-year starter is one of those kids that has soccer speed, with the ball or without, and she is adept, as is Santana, at understanding what is happening out there, and being in the right place when she needs to be. Football IQ, they possess in abundance.
Given the rare chance to counter against the wind, North rallied to a shot from Sam Aguilar – who conversely will win a track meet on the pitch – courtesy of a fine run and layoff from Gonzalez. The third valued senior alongside Santana and Hernandez, Nana is the conjurer in the middle, weaving through traffic, turning on powerful legs, and sending searing balls out wide to set up greyhounds Aguilar, Trinity Ochoa, or Deyanara Hernandez. What a smooth player, 23: Elvira Torres 2.0.
With North attempting to slow down T. Munoz, midfield battles became paramount, and here, North benefited from standout moments from junior Diana Flores, a rough and ready customer who will mix it up with anyone. For EHS, freshman Stephanie Rodriguez, younger sister of former program standout Debanhi Rodriguez, has been coming on as of late, and she too, like Flores, was making her impact on the match. So was Kenia Islas, who created a free kick opportunity for EHS, to no avail.
Ortiz of North then made another slick steal, after which Torres slalomed her way in and out of trouble from the back. Playing against a stiff wind is like killing the penalty in hockey, a man down: make the easy play, don’t try to over-pass, and hey, just get that thing out of there. Done.
When the Lady Coogs worked their way downfield on 15 minutes of the half, Flores connecting with Aguilar nicely, it was stalwart Angie Molina of the Lady ‘Cats with the stuffing intervention. She will do that, will the wily Molina. Lots.
Munoz of EHS rose high for a header off a corner, but the defense was able, this after Ortiz had contributed with another blocked shot. Munoz was fire all night, though, and now whipped a centering ball from the right that did not find a willing runner. Minutes on, the bandy-legged star crashed a try into the side netting after a sweet pass from sophomore teammate Sarai Rios. EHS did not suffer for opportunities in the first half Friday but also did not get the final ball in the area that might have fashioned a high-percentage chance in close.
Still, they almost got the goal when A. Rodriguez created a shot for Emily De la Garza down the stretch. But the half would end with the ridiculous save from Santana, and North knew that it would have the wind – and the psychological advantage – having held the Lady ‘Cats out for 40 grueling minutes.
KEEP MOVING FOR WARMTH
The temperature was about 50, maybe, as the second half commenced, but M. Munoz was unfazed, stepping up with belligerence to deny a shot attempt from North’s Gonzalez, off a throw-in. Then the dogged EHS center back bowed up to Flores’ try from 10 yards out, again making the block.
This flurry of activity in the first 10 minutes of the half ended with a scramble in front of goal. Munoz had leapt to chest the ball down and when North clipped a shot off the carom, someone handled for EHS, according to the officials. Up sauntered Y. Hernandez for North, and she would not miss, zinging one high and tight to the right for a 1-nil advantage.
Meanwhile, Flores was scrapping in the park middle with T. Munoz and this latter gal spent a taxing evening wading through multitudes of North defenders. In prior seasons, the Lady Coogs had perfected the art of smothering the opposition’s best scorer, i.e., the sublime Taylor Campbell of Vela, with team defense, multiple midfielders trying to deny space on the turn. And Friday they did their best to make sure Titi had to work for everything she got.
Shortly after the penalty, Aguilar had a goal chalked off for North after she was fastest to a rebound. Granted a reprieve, EHS went back to the rock pile, Munoz sprinting with the ball down the left side. But Hernandez, who seems to have radar implanted in her soul, churned over to stop the threat with steady, determined steps. Then Munoz was threatening on the other side – that’s how fast she is – and after tough little Lady Coog Frida Moralez slowed her progress, Hernandez steamed over to clean up the situation. That kid was there, EVERY time. Ya Ya … are you kidding me?!
Twenty minutes to go, North holding the lead but the aggressive Lady ‘Cats making the wind disadvantage almost a nonfactor. North’s D. Hernandez got a hard shot off and when EHS countered, Alessandra Garcia of North was on the spot to cut off a speeding De la Garza.
The Lady Coogs could have gone up 2-0 but D. Hernandez, after making a killer move to erase an EHS defender, barely missed a slicing chip.
Pleasing end-to-end football now, with De la Garza of EHS slipping a tasty thru ball in for Munoz. Any guesses on which North kid was there first to gum up the works? Yeah, Ya Ya.
Now it was getting desperate for the visitors, and the Lady ‘Cats strained forward in search of the equalizer. Rios fought through a scrum to find De la Garza, who fed T. Munoz, as Coach Serjio Elizarraraz’ group was intent on getting this done. Munoz’s laser went to the side netting from the right, though, and moments later she clobbered a promising cross that went wide left. Hurtin’ that ball!
It wouldn’t be EHS-North without some madcap antics from the fans. We know this. And no one was super shocked when the raucous Cougar rooting section was asked to leave the ground, with 10 minutes remaining. This, the rowdy band did, albeit with all deliberate speed, as the saying goes. Home side gets the boot, gotcho!
The fans missed a beautifully lofted pass out of the midfield by Rios of EHS, which S. Rodriguez ran onto and moved on to T. Munoz. Back to make one of the most important stops of the night was Garcia of North. Yes, the senior stars, but on Friday, Watson’s supporting cast was standing and delivering big time.
One last gasp via a Rios bullet into the box, Munoz using every bit of juice she had left to try and head the ball. Nope.
Then came the second goal, on a pretty little play from Torres, after the EHS D fell asleep and let her waltz in for an unmarked shot.
Full time, and North in command, looking for a playoff spot, the Lady Bobcats knowing that in order to make the grade, they’ll need a little help down the road. Every time they got close to the goal – and that was often, due to the excellence of the piranha Munoz – somebody was there to save the day for North. Hernandez, the defensive group, a backtracking midfielder. They all pitched in to record the side’s fourth clean sheet of the league season and send the program closer to the Promised Land.
But in the end, the buck stops here, with Santana in goal. She is a wonder.