January 27, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Sometimes the lessons you learn come after victory, which reinforces positives and lends confidence and belief. However, every now and then a group can, oddly, benefit from a defeat. Not in the fact of the loss itself, obviously, but in the realization that against the odds, faced with adversity, a narrow defeat at the hands of a quality opponent can be just as advantageous in the long run.
This was what the Lady Bobcats experienced Friday at home, when down several regulars for various and sundry reasons, they were able to stand in and clash with a strong Brownsville Rivera side, coming within two minutes of a stirring draw. When the Lady Raiders punched in a goal at 2:01 of the second half, they were able to escape with a 1-0 non-district result. But for 78 minutes, Coach Cerjio Elizarraraz saw his girls dig in, fight, and put together stretches when they controlled the run of play. Even with the final denouement, completed when Rivera countered against a fatigued EHS to loft a long shot from the right wing that sailed all the way to the far post and in, the coach knew that his kids had given it all.
“We have been missing some girls during many of our games,” the veteran coach explained. “Some are in other sports, extracurricular activities, and we always seem to have to deal with that. Girls are into so many things these days that sometimes it’s tough to get your whole lineup out there.”
Add to that situation the graduation of the core of last year’s playoff combatant – with losses up and down the line from the Cuatas Munoz to defender Angie Molina and versatile Abby Martinez – and the 2022-23 season has been a challenge for the program. The Lady Bobcats were bumping along near the .500 mark heading into Friday, having played a treacherous schedule including eight matches against salty Laredo schools. They had carved out a credible draw Tuesday at home against Brownsville Hanna, but in that action, star midfielder Amily Rodriguez suffered a knock which put her in the concussion protocol, meaning she was a no-go for Rivera. Losing the top player in the side was just another point of adversity for EHS, but the girls who were there Friday went on to make a fine account of themselves, ahead of the start of league play in early February.
“One play … that’s all it took,” sighed Elizararraz after the late winner from the Lady Raiders, who touched well all night, had multiple shot attempts, but were stymied by a defensive effort headlined by the vastly improved Sarai Rios. “When you’re missing players it’s always tough, but we did well tonight; we’ve played some tough teams so far this year, and you just have to go with who you have.”
JUST BACKPACKS ON THE BENCH
On a night when the Lady ‘Cats were severely shorthanded (just two subs), there were several kids who enjoyed the opportunity to compete. Goalkeeper Rocio Pulido was particularly outstanding Friday, holding the talented Lady Raiders out until the final shot, which was just a moment of pure quality that no keeper could have done anything about. With Amily Rodriguez and Stephany Rodriguez not on the team sheet, the lineup shuffle placed girls in new places, and a refurbished midfield battled Rivera on even terms for the most part.
And some other players are also in new roles, with Rios, now a veteran with much experience, leading the way. Before the match began, the strong-legged junior – who has played farther up front at times in the past – told the assembled team about dealing with the officials, reminding them not to talk back to the ref. The girls nodded solemnly. Earlier in the day it had been cold and threatening showers, but the game would unfold on a beautiful night for football.
“Hey … it’s … raining,” mused a Lady ‘Cat, lifting her arms to the heavens with a smile as the sky revealed a slow falling mist, barely perceptible. One could almost, in the glare of the stadium lights, see individual drops cascading lazily down. Though there would be slight precipitation intermittently, the night was in the main clear, and the Lady ‘Cats got down to business.
In the early stage, Rivera was in command, standing on the ball and sending passes here and there, heading intently for the attacking third. But when the Lady Raiders got there, there was a tough little customer waiting for them.
Kariely Reyes comes from a Lobos soccer background and it showed Friday as she went to business, cutting off attackers, sticking her nose into the fray consistently, exhibiting sound instincts and movement to the point of emphasis. Six minutes in, Rivera managed a shot on goal, which bounced to Pulido. Again came the enemy, and Rios was ready, clearing away with a strong volley. She’s played a number of roles for the side through the years and now Rios is firmly entrenched in the back. Elizarrraz noted that Rios is in superior shape and has shown steady composure on the ball all year long. Time and again Friday she was to come up with big plays to keep the charge going, and her powerful throw-ins were a weapon in themselves. She and Reyes saved the day after a breakdown, keeping Rivera off the scoreboard at 32:30.
Then Destyni Garza joined the party with a sharp slide tackle in the midfield. EHS had been buffeted by the precision and skill of Rivera in the starting stretch, and its coach reminded them to stay focused.
“Control the ball, control it!” Elizarraraz hollered. “You’ve got time!”
When the home side got possession and transitioned into attack, freshman Olivia Ruiz came to the fore. Speedy and slick, the newcomer hopes to alleviate some of the pain of graduation, as for the first time in four seasons the Lady ‘Cats cannot lean in on the on-ball wizardry of Titi Munoz. Ruiz and fellow forward Cassandra Cuellar both have some wheels and they set about trying to get the ball from their mids for hopeful engagement of the Lady Raider defenders.
One of the EHS returning leaders is Denise Guerrero, and she now took a star turn in the D, racing back to cut off Rivera’s goal-scoring champ to stop a threat. It looked at first like Guerrero might not get there, but she seemed to will herself to run faster, and the sturdy vet was able to make the play at 19:30. This nicely illustrated the team’s desire on display Friday.
Winger Emily De la Garza was active in tracking back now and the Lady ‘Cats looked to counter, Ruiz soon popping a long one into the final third. With Tebaul battling and Rios coming up with another smart step-in and clearance, EHS settled in. The defense, minus former star and now grad Melo Munoz, acquitted itself nicely under pressure, as tough Ashley Tamayo turned in a rugged shift in the back.
Back up the field, Adaia Tebaul was working hard, as always. Though she has been mainly a wing player, Tebaul did an admirable job in a new place against Rivera, banging around, making contact with the enemy, and generally holding her own in the center of the park.
At 14:30 the visitor went on frame with a try, but the keeper was sound, yet then a dicey moment occurred. Rios sailed over to try and defend a Rivera chance, and with ferocious strength she stood the attacker up well, just inside the box. What happened next is open to conjecture. The Rivera forward appeared to barge into Rios, but the whistle went against EHS, resulting in a penalty at 12:45. Luckily, the spot kick bombed high and clanked off the crossbar and into the night, a fortuitous let-off that brought raucous cheers from the home side and its supporters.
The objective now was to get to the interval with the scoreless draw intact, and this was accomplished, even against a formidable rush from Rivera. To close the half, Reyes came over for a perfect sliding tackle and Tebaul roared down the right side to the endline, running out of room but getting a decent cross in. Guerrero, the seasoned junior, came up too, for a shot on goal with her booming right leg and Rios showed her bona fides with a mammoth clearance. Cristal Munoz came on to steal an inbounds pass from Rivera as all over the park, Red and Blue footballers were motoring, competing, succeeding.
At the break the team gathered around its coach and all applauded the exploits of the keeper, Pulido, who grinned broadly when recounting the harrowing penalty kick scene just past. Given that reprieve, the Lady ‘Cats would now come back to the rock pile to keep smashing away. They’d hung in there against a deft side full of tricks, and now started thinking about a win.
THIS IS DOABLE
De la Garza, who was to enjoy a terrific second half, got it going with a ball to Tebaul, who then switched play left to right, eventuating in a cross from Garza early on. A defensive lapse allowed a Rivera attempt but back came EHS after a Tebual steal and a huge header clearance of 30 yards from Rios, who was easily the Girl of the Match for the Lady ‘Cats. She and teammate Mia Checa were adept at using their heads Friday, the latter providing some quality play in an attacking role or further back: Checa put in some serious miles in this one. Work rate.
As Rivera started to mishandle the slick ball, during a patch of light rain, EHS tried to wrest momentum away, as Guerrero made a run into the zone. Soon, it was the junior Checa who got a fit on a loose ball in the box, heading to goal on 32 minutes.
Again, though, the defense suffered a blip on the screen, failing to locate a striker from Rivera, and on 30 minutes, Pulido was called to duty again, coming through. Four minutes later, Tebaul squeezed through defensive traffic to pop off a snap shot and soon after, De la Garza curled a try from the right corner.
It looked like EHS was about to score at this stage, truly. And of course, as the game goes sometimes, the exact opposite almost transpired as the Lady Raiders suddenly romped free for a 1-on-1 against Pulido, who stood in and made the save on 24 minutes. This was one of the most exciting moments of the match, for sure. Poise under pressure.
Rivera had recovered now and was advancing once more with purpose. The visitor earned a corner, played it out short, but was foiled when Reyes read the play smartly and scooted out to break up the shot. IQ.
On the next Rivera shot, junior De la Garza was on the spot with a superb hustle play, careening in to clean up a spill in the 6-yard box, which led to an EHS run on which Tebaul and De la Garza combined to move the ball downfield. Here it was Checa leading the next stage with a couple of solid stops on Rivera girls. Rios, too, was called upon to make the plays, and she responded well now with a strong and decisive maneuver.
Time on the wane and a golden chance arose for Elizarraraz’ ever-charging crew. Forcing down the right with significant pace, De la Garza created a chance, and soon, a throw-in from Rios led to a pair of shots in close, to no avail. Busy bees Cuellar and Ruiz were zooming around trying to force a Rivera error, and on change of possession, Guerrero sent a ball into the box, which Rivera handled. The Lady ‘Cats kept the pressure on, Checa coming close on a header. With six minutes left, Tebaul hustled to an interception, showing that if you keep running toward the action, and are ready to perform, good things can happen. She didn’t ball watch, it wasn’t her man, but she just attacked the play anyway, running right onto the ball and gaining possession. Desire.
Here was the real Danger Zone though, with EHS on the hunt and Rivera backpedaling, its kids scuttling like crabs to avoid the breakthrough goal from the Lady ‘Cats. In this situation, the counter is a distinct possibility, and on cue, arrived Rivera, in the waning minutes. De la Garza was making much mayhem on the right and the Lady ‘Cats got a shot off at 3:15. But on the restart, the Lady Raiders negotiated the length of the pitch with three swift and masterful passes, and the fourth kid who got on the ball slotted home a backbreaker of a goal at 2:01.
There was one last chance for the ECISD side, and Checa clipped one into the box, but no runners were available. Though fatigued, EHS provided one more highlight when Rios rose up and smacked the oncoming ball – which had traveled 25 yards, fast – with a beautiful sideways, scorpion-ish karate kick that is exceedingly difficult to do, says Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
After a tough loss, the coach was sanguine for the most part. His side had gone to war minus several key kids, shrugged that off, and almost pulled off the result.
“We dodged a bullet in the first half, with that penalty,” said Elizararraz, who saw the same scenario almost happen in the second, when Rios expertly defended, the Rivera girl dived like a swan, and “play on” was the official’s opinion. As it should have been on both plays, some may suggest, but onward. “Rocio came up with some nice saves for us, and our girls showed some good leadership out there. We had some girls playing out of position but I think they were able to do it. So now if we can get our full team back, I think we are going to come into district and be able to compete.”