March 25, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for EHS vs Donna North Game Gallery Click here for North vs Rivera Game
The package deal came off well Friday night with a truly sizable crowd on hand to watch first the Cougars and then the Bobcats take their shot in bi-district soccer action at Richard R. Flores Stadium. The weather was fine, not rainy or windy or cold, the opponents stout in Brownsville Rivera and Donna North.
Stage set for a doubleheader, but unfortunately for the locals, it will be the Raiders and Chiefs moving on to the area round. Finals: Rivera 3, North 0; Donna North 2, EHS 1.
For the Cougars, it was a case of facing the wrong team at the wrong time. Coach Elias Moran was bold in deciding to have his guys on the front foot, attacking and not parking the bus or laying back against a higher-rated opponent. And this was a sound plan because North, this season, is not that far off from Rivera, in terms of talent. The latest Raider edition is not the 2015 version which went 28-0 behind star midfielder Isidro Martinez, now playing for the Toros, and won the state championship.
But Friday, they sure played like it.
Moving and passing with expertise and grace, Rivera was like an 11-man ballet out there, creating and using space, dancing on the ball briefly before sending it shooting on the ground all over the park, always to the open area. In a masterful display of skill, Rivera carved up the Cougars 3-0, keeping Moran’s gang off balance and chasing, hustling but arrioving a step slow to the point of emphasis. Instead of attacking with relish, as they can often do, the Coogs spent a frustrating night trying to catch up: to the ball and the man, and right off the bat, to the scoreboard.
A rare defensive lapse by North two minutes into the match gave the Raiders a corner, which they scored on at 38:17. The one thing North knew it could not do coming in – get behind early – had happened, as the ball bounced tantalizingly free in front of goal, eventually ending up in the net for a quick 1-0 lead to the visitor.
Minutes later, the Raiders almost did it again, but for a mad Coog scramble to clear out of the area. Far from getting on the offensive, North was grappling with a real problem. Every pass the Coogs made was contested, every run was checked, and soon it became apparent that it would take a mammoth effort by the home crew to stay in it. At this level, against a well-firing foe, the openings are few and far between. The moments pass with blinding speed, and you’re struggling to stay up with the pace of the game.
Pinging the ball around in a diamond, back to wide and into the middle – sometimes reversing the pattern and ball alertly across the field – the Raiders were an absolute machine Friday, handling what pressure there was calmly and with resolve. They owned the width, their passes were sure, movement perfect, and confidence supreme. Having compiled the best defensive record in 31-6A, the Coogs were now face to face with a tremendous offensive club, as every white- and black-clad Raider was sharp, efficient, and deadly.
Forced into booting the ball long to try and survive the relentless Rivera surge, North was dependent on kick and run, Route 1 style, and did not make much headway.
Finally, on 28 minutes, Moran’s kids started to advance, as Brandon Saenz turned on the ball and forced right side, deep to a throw-in. But the toss went harmlessly beyond the byline, untouched, and this was the sort of failure in execution one cannot have against the top schools. Still, sophomore Jesus Martinez produced a promising sequence with a shot off a Saenz run, while at the other end senior Carlos Gonzalez closed out a Rivera foray.
Despite having been badly outplayed, North was hanging tough.
At the midway point Rivera fashioned a chance with a nice midair dink pass followed by a quick shot. But the Coogs held. Every time the Raiders attacked, the defense scrambled to save, but the clearances upfield were not with much direction or purpose. It was like watching one team play a man down, banging the ball out of the area but never connecting from defense to midfield. Even when Saenz made steals on back-to-back plays, North was not finding the mesh or combinations it had used to much effect during the district slate.
By the half, North had survived, down a goal, and Moran got his seniors together before the restart.
“Cuatro anos … cuarenta minutos,” he told his assembled group of veterans, reminding them of all the work they had put in during their high school careers. The final advice: play hard, through the pain. Bring it.
And North responded, as Francisco Roman paired with Fernie Ortiz to move the side upfield, locating scoring threat Anthony Flores. That move produced a corner, but Friday was not a neat night for set pieces from the home side. A minute later, Ortiz broke free and looked to be in on goal before being stopped short.
The home boys kept the pressure on with Flores and Ortiz popping peas back and forth until Raul Garcia clipped into the box. The Rivera defense, with a 6-3, 200-pound center back in command, coolly parried the threat away.
At this stage, though Rivera had been the better outfit all around, the outcome was still there, possibilities to be had. Ortiz, who played a man’s match in bi-district with extreme hustle and will, created a shot from Martinez, which went wide on 27 minutes. Gonzalez stepped in to stop a Raider drive on two straight occasions. He was competing like champ.
But then utter quality made the matter moot, as Rivera switched play left to right, the ball crossing to the back post, where a chip sent it back left. A Raider immediately headed down in the 6-yard box and a teammate was there to slam home expertly at 26:09. Bing bang boom, and for all intent and purposes, game over. One could only marvel at the beautiful football of the visitor from Brownsville.
To their credit, the outgunned Coogs never flagged, running to some chances in the last 20 minutes, Ortiz leading the charge. His free kick curled around the post and on 30 minutes Flores ran deep and pulled one back to Raul Garcia; soon Roman got a shot attempt off but Rivera was there, every time, to intervene and make it impossible for North to dent the net.
Gonzalez came up from the back to get an attempt after a steal-and-run from Ortiz looked like a potential winner. Late in the match, the senior Ortiz blasted shoulder to shoulder on the sideline with a burly Raider, showing that he was going to go out fighting.
On this night, though, Rivera was splendid in all phases, adding a third goal near the close on a free kick from 15 yards that benefited from a slight deflection off the North wall to sneak unharried into the twines.
Just the way it goes when one is faced with such a machine as Rivera, which was flawless in bi-district, operating with precision and plan. Sometimes, it just isn’t going to happen for you and there is no shame in having been beaten by such a sleek and relentless side at its very best.
BOBCATS PONDER WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Meanwhile, the EHS squad sat in the stands at The Stadium, marveling at how Rivera was faring. They would soon be out on the green against a Chief team that ended up more rugby than football, from pillar to post.
The Bobcats went into bi-district without leading goal scorer Dilan Cazares, a card accumulation casualty, and without a regular goalkeeper, which has been the case for the past six weeks. They finished second in 31-6A despite several obstacles so one had to consider their chances as decent against Donna North, the third-place entry from Lower Valley climes.
It started well as the Chiefs made a mistake in back, leading to a corner for the ’Cats. It did not yield anything and a few minutes on, Coach Luis Cardenas received a jolt when key playmaker Miguel Solis was clobbered on the far side of the pitch. He stayed down but was not out, soon returning to the action.
And the action, from the beginning, was nasty. If North-Rivera was Tiki Taka, EHS-Donna North was more old-fashioned ‘70s English football: physical tackles, hard-hitting scrums, and not a little talking and jawing back and forth. That was the tone set by Donna North early on: contact, intimidation, and attempts to throw the swift-moving ‘Cats off with elbows, knees, gamesmanship and the ancient “Dark Arts” of the game.
EHS worked through the rough stuff, launching a few successful forays into the area. Defender Adrian Taboada had a long slicing drive come close and Jerry Vidal took off on a strong dash from in back, nearly creating a shot for a teammate before the Chiefs crashed that gate with some hard-edged defense.
Just after North was carded for a dangerous tackle – one of 10 yellows the teams combined to earn on the night – EHS was caught napping on a counter. The Chiefs raced down the right side, beating a defender who tracked back a step late, and put the ball in the net at 28:59.
Looking at a deficit at home for the first round of the playoffs, EHS then welcomed a gift from the gods, as Donna North, after another bloody challenge just outside the box, went down to 10 men after a straight red card sent off an overzealous Chief defender. For the next 56 minutes, the testy and cagy visitor would play with 10, and it was up to the Bobcats to relax, be meticulous, and take advantage of this decidedly key juncture of the match.
But sometimes it happens that when a side gets the unexpected advantage it can ironically become nervous, expectant, and exasperated. The longer you go without using the benefit, the more confident the short-manned squad becomes. And this is how it went down in the second half of the bi-district double dip.
Directly after the red, a Bobcat was ill advisedly harsh in the tackle, getting cautioned with yellow, and the momentum started to wane. Though Ethan Garcia was at his best on the ball, picking through defenders and sighting the open man, speedy Hernan Tovar was being marked out of the match. So effective he’s been all year with his quickness and ability, but Donna North knew this, and its brain trust schemed accordingly. Every time Tovar got on the ball, not one but two Chiefs raced onto him, occasionally three, jostling the sturdy little senior star, refusing to give him a chance to get into high gear.
Minus Cazares on the left side in attack, the ‘Cats could not counter the enemy strategy of forcing Tovar to give it up.
One of the ‘Cats who did his best to right the ship was Cesar Tovar, who now slid in to tackle and popped back up in an instant to gain possession on the steal. He was excellent Friday, the so-called Other Tovar. Every bit as hard as the Chiefs, and less dirty, too.
As the first half drained away, Donna North clawing at the ‘Cats and not letting them unlimber the passing game, Garcia was again in full fancy mode, slaloming around, head up, looking for options. His classy fakes produced a Hernan Tovar shot, to goal catch, on 15 minutes.
This was the pattern, possession to EHS, understaffed Donna North seeking to defend and spring the occasional counter. The Chiefs made it to the interval still ahead, 1-0, despite a banger into the box from Taboada and a long, sailing shot lefty from Garcia, which was not far from succeeding. Cristian Castillo also took off on a run or two into the zone, and to culminate one of them, he lofted a promising shot from the right that got held up in the wind and ended up in the keeper’s gloves.
As the action got chippier, EHS had twin opportunities near the end of the half. The first was a Solis header palmed just over the bar and the second was a Vidal blast that the net-minded gloved off the post and away. So close came the ’Cats, so close indeed.
Had it not been for the halftime whistle, there might have been a Pier 6 Brawl, such was the animosity between the two sides – and increasingly, the fans. Big, angry crowd Friday night, no question. Yay, halftime.
HAVE TO HAVE IT
After going through the long stretch in the first a man up but oozing frustration all the same, the Bobcats appeared to have regained their composure to begin the second. This observation was validated and magnified when stocky forward Edgar Chavez rose up like a salmon to head in a free kick off the boot of Vidal at 35:50. The equalizer was equal parts placement (from Vidal) and elevation and execution (Chavez); the latter turned his body to one side as he jumped high, knees tucked, flicking the ball at the exact proper moment and using its momentum to guide in. Terrific goal, score level, and 35 minutes to go, plenty of time for Cardenas’ never-say-die group to pull off another victory. Given the injuries, surprise defections, and other barriers, EHS had performed very well in getting to this stage, and it seemed like the Golden Road was now open at last.
However. Cardinal rule No. 1 in such a situation: once a side gets the equalizer, it is incumbent upon it not to give the run of play back to the defending team. In other words, keep mojo, use it, and go for the kill. Especially when the wounded enemy is plodding ahead with 10 men.
This, alas, the ‘Cats could not do, as Donna North, bruises, absence and all, took all of five minutes to regain the lead at 2-1. After allowing Tovar a rare sight of goal, and withstanding a massive blast from Garcia, the Chiefs roared back downfield. EHS committed a foul out front (with the now seemingly obligatory yellow card being brandished) and DN crashed a hard shot from 20 yards out. The EHS keeper spilled it, a Donna North kid was quick to react, and bundled it in at 30:28 to absolutely re-set the karma of the night.
Very, very bad moment for the home side. And it would cost them in the end.
EHS rode to a chance off a Vidal cross from the left, which a sliding Taboada barely missed slotting, and then more cards. Hand it to Donna North, that team thrived on physicality Friday, and almost had to, really. The ‘Cats had more all-around quality, by a slight but discernible margin, and playing head up, flying with EHS, this would have been probable cause of death for the Chiefs. So they banged, they held, and they pushed. And despite keeping the official busy building his house of cards, the Chiefs gradually bossed the match, not allowing too much lightfoot action from the Bobcats. Smart. Borderline legal. But smart.
From 25 minutes on, EHS poured everything into the attack and came near the re-equalizer many times. Garcia’s cross almost found the head of freshman Jesus “Pollo” Torres, and then Chavez worked to a shot in front, which rolled to the keeper. At this stage, Pedro Guzman, out from the goal where he had played keeper the first half, was standing out for his romps up from the back, and muscular Jesus “Chino” Garza was also working hard to get his team back into the mix.
It wasn’t for lack of desire that the ‘Cats were thwarted in the last stretches. It was more the belief of the Chiefs, a circle-the-wagons, never surrender approach, that did the do. They should have gone down under the circumstances, but they didn’t!
On 18 minutes, a great passing blitz, with Solis plinking to H. Tovar and Tovar to Garcia, earning a corner. But this time, Chavez was marked off the kick.
With EHS pressing, Donna North took the occasional chance with a counter, to no avail. Guzman advanced proudly into the attacking third to draw a foul for EHS and Taboada leapt to get a piece of the free kick, but the goal was still elusive, time becoming a factor.
Solis rolled a deft pass to Castillo in the box, and time stood still … no whistle, after some suspicious contact down low on the EHS man. The ‘Cats were defiant, though, rebounding from a bad throw-in they were whistled for to engage the Chiefs on a Chino chip to Castillo which ended up on the toe of Chavez. Again, clattering defensive play from DN, no foul forthcoming, sending the nervy ‘Cats into a lather of frustration.
Chavez was now the focal point in the plan and got another chance thanks to a Solis/Garcia connection, falling short when he was cratered by a pair of Chiefs.
On six minutes, the season on the line, H. Tovar poked one close to goal, Garcia getting a stab at the rebound. Solis produced a blast that went wide, and then it was Chavez, rampaging through three defenders, using his strength and bull-like energy, staying low to the ground and turning through traffic, at 3:37. But it was not to be, as the North defense recovered to stop him short of a goal that would have granted extra time to the affair.
The contact on that play was brutal and the memory that will stick for all time was not the result of the play, but the ferocity and yearning of Chavez, who wheeled and twisted, pounded his way through like a mini-Maradona, center of gravity combined with plain old wanna. Those close to the pitch could hear bone and muscle on bone and muscle, could see the spit/snot flying as the EHS forward crashed into and around multiple Chief defenders. What a superb moment!!
At the last minute, local hearts palpitated as the ‘Cats earned a restart opportunity in a dangerous position, 12 yards out. It was crashed wide, though, at 2:52, and Chavez tried to set up a teammate with a side-foot pass on the ensuing sequence. Nothing. Clock ticks, what will be destiny …
Guzman laced a free kick into the area as the game tried to die, H. Tovar speeding onto it for a last-second miracle. Just as the senior star appeared to be getting a shot at glory, a Chiefs defender cut off the play, blocked the shot, and the season was nearly done.
EHS refused to submit. Battling against the clock, the ‘Cats got one last gasp as the night ended, the final kick of the night swooping over the bar and into oblivion. It was now finished.
To say it was an exciting game is to err, basically. It was more fascinating than exciting, unless you consider pounding, physical football your cup of tea. The interesting part was the way each team responded to adversity, hacked through a difficult situation, their members somehow managing not to tear each other to pieces or end up playing five-a-side after so many cautions from the ref.
EHS fought to the end, but a couple of key blunders did them. Tying the match at 1 was gold, but then directly giving the lead back was kryptonite. Just the way it goes. It is a cruel mistress, football, and it can break your heart sometimes, at the least opportune times. Still, better to have played and lost than not to have competed at all.
Life is hard, at times unfair
and surely tests the resolve.