January 5, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for North vs Warren game gallery
It should be a compelling season ahead for the city footballers, as illustrated by a busy week of tournament matches just past. Two boys’ squads were in Brownsville for the 40th BISD event, while two girls’ units competed at the 25th McAllen Showcase. Other ECISD schools were somewhere playing somebody, all with the intent of hammering out a rotation and refining ways of play in the preseason.
By the time district soccer action begins, soon for the 5A Vela sides and later, much later for the 6A rest of the gang, the area’s entries should be raring to compete for the playoffs. On the boys’ side, North worked to a pair of draws on the first day of the BISD and will head into 2022-23 looking to grab a ninth playoff appearance in a row, excluding 2020, when there was no postseason for anyone. EHS was also down south starting Thursday and in time, the Bobcats of Coach Luis Cardenas hope to get into the Second Season bracket for the sixth time in nine seasons. In head-to-head competition at Brownsville, the Bobcats beat the Coogs over the weekend.
Econ has a new manager in the wake of veteran Sam Gonzalez’ departure after more than 20 seasons on the touchline. The Jags continue to climb toward a return to glory, after having missed the playoffs each season since last making it in 2019. Vela, too, seeks rebirth, a return to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
On the girls’ side, North is working on a streak of eight appearances, while Econ – which also a new coach after the retirement of the memorable Robert Garcia – hunts for a second straight trip after ending a lengthy run of futility in ‘22. Both those sides were amid a killer field of Showcase luminaries during the three-day event winding up Saturday. The matches were the full 80 minutes instead of the usual tourney 40 to 60.
EHS has been a playoff regular lately, and then there is Vela, by far the most successful program in recent times with six appearances in a row and back-to-back three-deep voyages the past two campaigns.
For Coach Elias Moran and the North Cougars, this season might be an excellent one as the spine of the team is intact from the last run, when they made the grade but lost to Rivera in bi-district. Keeper Adrian Alvarez and defender Kenneth Reyes are all-stars, while savvy midfielder Fernie Ortiz mans the center with Anthony Flores and Jesus Martinez as speedy strikers. The Coogs graduated three-quarters of the back line, though, meaning the fantastic Reyes will break in a series of green partners in 2022-23.
Edinburg will have a new look under Cardenas after a handful of veterans used up their eligibility. The ‘Cats were ousted last year by Donna North in the first round and will seek to go farther now with scoring whiz Dylan Cazares on the wing joined by rugged Edgar Chavez and elusive Ethan Garcia. They should be strong in attack if they can find replacements for graduated playmaker Miguel Soils and steady Jerry Tovar, among others.
Econ, with new coach Juan Rodriguez, returns a bunch of kids who weathered a difficult season in 2021-22, Edgar Herrera, Angel Limon, and keeper Emmanuel Ruiz as the leading lights. Vela brings back standout Eduardo “Lalo” Valdez, who was a terrific kicker in the football season and hopes to help build on a solid program performance last year that saw the SaberCats compete for a playoff spot before fading.
The EHS gals will advance to battle this season minus the Munoz Sisters for the first time in forever. Both Titi and Mello graduated, leaving the Lady Cats without their longtime twin talismans, but midfielder Amily Rodriguez, outstanding as a freshman, will be ready to assume leadership chores.
The Lady Jags, now led by manager Kristie Jarquin, have a good supply of girls back from the breakthrough of 2021-22, but must replace team captain Neyda Garcia, whose presence was immense during the run to the bracket. Vela returns most of the unit that made a second third-round appearance, so despite being placed in a strong league including the McAllen and Sharyland programs, expect Americo Cortez and his Lady SaberCats to fight for a district title once again.
That brings us to North, where Coach Marianna Watson begins a second season in charge of her alma mater. The Lady Cougars have played a murderous schedule so far, including some of the top teams in the Valley, and the experience may pay off in time.
“We lost a lot of studs from last year, so this is basically a new team,” said Watson, who goes to war without Nana Gonzalez in the middle, Deyanara Hernandez up front, and Yaya Hernandez in back. “But playing all the hard teams now, to get ready for district, this will show us what it takes, what we have to do, etc. Right now, we’re not really clicking as well as we will be once district hits. The girls just have to be patient, get better every day.”
It’s a young group with few returning starters, so Watson is steady on a daily basis, trying to teach the game and form the right mental outlook.
“Learn, grow, and push, that’s what we are trying to do,” she explained. “We keep telling the girls: these games don’t count, there’s no pressure in tournaments and non-district. The pressure will come when the league begins, and we gotta be ready for it.”
As far as her own learning curve, the former Lady Coog, physical and intense as a footballer, can point to some positive developments.
“I think I learned a lot last year about being a head coach,” said Watson, a successful assistant for Cortez with the Vela girls in the past. “These days I am trusting my instincts about what we need to do, whereas last year I probably had a tendency to overthink things. Now I am asking my team questions all the time: what do you do in this situation? And what would you do if this happened? I am hoping it catches on with the team, over time. It takes that time to learn how to react and how to adjust.”
The latest Lady Coog edition will form around speedy attacker Sam Aguilar and amazing goalkeeper Belen Santana, two of the best players in the area. In the Showcase match against SA Warren Thursday evening, Aguilar’s worth as a striker was attested to by the Warren coach. Minutes into the action, he pointed to No. 9, Aguilar and yelled out, “You have to mark her all the time, everywhere she goes.”
The key to the drill in 2022-23 will be locating a midfield piece to replace the graduated Gonzalez, who was a fabulous general in the middle, spraying passes with expertise. Watson said that senior Diana Flores could be a fit in the middle and against Warren, she was a physical presence out there, banging away on the athletic Warren frontliners.
“We have to link up and get some delivery for Sam to be at her best,” Watson commented. “She is very fast and has a nose for goal, but we need to make sure she gets some good passes.”
The defense will be marshaled by Ruby Torres, a slightly built but clever and aggressive gal who is now at center back. There, she will sit in front of one of the best net-minders the city has ever boasted.
Santana, whose agility and toughness have buoyed the side for three seasons, was on fire at times in the opening act of the Showcase, making no fewer than six saves. One was a slide onto one knee at the near post, with a kick save, and another was a headlong dive to the left to parry a bullet of a try from a Warren forward.
Santana continued to show a strong punt and leg on goal kicks, and Watson appreciates the quality that the seasoned vet brings to the table.
“You have to be tough to be a goalie, and that means physically and mentally,” the coach stated. “As a keeper, you have to be able to not let things get to you. We know we can count on Belen.” North, like the other 6A groups in town, will spend the month of January working toward the mesh and rhythm leading into district, which kicks off Feb. 4. The Vela outfits do not have the luxury of a long gestation period because they compete in a 10-team league. Both will be into district next week, as the Sabes and Lady Sabes start Jan. 13 with a doubleheader at P-SJ-A Southwest.