February 7, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
With a relatively inexperienced squad and their best player on the sidelines for an extended time due to injury, the Cougars came into the initial stage of District 31-6A play Tuesday hoping for the best against always tough La Joya. What they got was very much: a spirited performance including a fight-back from a goal down, promising efforts all over the pitch, and a bunch of experience gained through a tense match.
Though North eventually went down on penalty kicks, Coach Elias Moran’s side struck late in regulation to get the equalizer, after having led 1-0 until late in the first half. After the Coyotes tallied a pair to go up, 2-1, the Coogs turned it up a notch in the final 20 minutes, peppering the La Joya defense with several solid chances until Anthony Flores assisted to the classy Jesus Martinez on eight minutes to level, leading to the PK session.
To counter the huge loss of defensive standout Kenneth Reyes, whose status for the remaining matches is still up in the air, the Coogs leaned on some guys who have been around, such as goalkeeper Adrian Alvarez, who made a handful of sharp saves Tuesday. In the middle of the park, skilled veteran Jacob Roman was active the entire night, while a host of other kids made their mark in various ways. The Old Gold appeared to be on the way to victory in the league opener, taking the early lead in the shootout, and even though the side faded down the stretch there, it was a strong effort overall against a worthy opponent.
For Moran, now in his 11th season, the game showed that his teachings are taking root with the latest North edition.
“I try to focus on strengths and not weaknesses,” he said. “I find out what a guy can do and then we show him how to take advantage of that. Sometimes it’s, keep it simple, do the little things right, and don’t try to do too much. Make the easy pass, don’t take chances, etc. And during non-district I think we started to come around. We beat some good teams out at the Laredo Tournament, we beat Hanna and San Benito, tied with Harlingen, those are teams we might see in the playoffs.”
The coach noted that matches like this one, vs. La Joya, and the previous encounters from non-district, are all about progress and learning.
“If you expose them to pressure situations, they get something out of it, ideally,” he explained. “We expose them to adversity and by that, they grow their mental strength; then, they see it again down the line, adversity, and they are used to it, they know what to do.”
Moran is also a big believer in timing, saying that moments will appear during a match, and then in seconds, those moments go away.
“We have to be ready when the time comes, we’re learning that,” he commented. “You will see a disciplined group when you watch us. Tactically, well organized, and doing their best to make good passes, and get experience, those are the main things.”
With Flores and Martinez up front, and Roman in the midfield, Alvarez in goal, the spine is quality, although Moran does miss the excellence of Reyes, who is down with a knee injury and attended the Tuesday affair on crutches. But he cannot dwell on it, nor does he want his team to. Luckily, the program has some new defenders who carved out a niche in the opener.
Centrally, Martin Montano is a burly newcomer who hustles constantly, while lanky youngster Erick Gonzalez is a former keeper now playing left back, where he was effective at times Tuesday using his long legs and agility. He also came up front to head in a corner early in the night, less than four minutes in, giving the Coogs a lead they held onto until 6:34 of the halftime break. On the right in the back four was Jose Nino, a solid physical specimen who had his moments against a tough La Joya side that proved adept at either putting the ball on the deck or playing Route 1. The other central defender was Jonathan Rivas, whose toughness and quickness identify him as a definite man to watch in the side. He was terrific from start to finish.
Dressed in their light mint green tops with dark blue shorts, the Coogs made a sure account of themselves, and almost pulled off the three points, settling for one instead ahead of a match at home against Mission Friday. The Eagles began the slate with a 1-0 loss to EHS, while Econ continued its resurgence by clobbering P-SJ-A as 31-6A kicked off, a night behind the teams in 32-6A.
The players took the pitch for warmups wearing special T-shirts honoring teammate Angel Vazquez, who suffered a broken leg in a recent game. And they seemed intent on showing La Joya a thing or two about loyalty and motivation.
Rivas slammed a pair of loose balls far downfield with his head to begin the night as North worked against a fairly stiff wind. Gonzalez, who stands over 6-foot and can leap, made the first of several clearances by winning an aerial duel off a Coyote corner and then it was time for Martinez to go off. He and Flores have developed a potent partnership with the latter flying down the wings and the former holding up play to make quick turns, or at times, motoring down under long ones sent from the back. Martinez was flat cranking it from the get-go, bothering the La Joya defense with furious rushes. He is stronger than he looks, and was called for a number of fouls in attack and frankly, several of them could be debated … and were, as it was a somewhat chaotic night out at North, from that standpoint. Typical football, high passion abounding. At any rate, Martinez forced to a corner which was taken by Villafuerte, and through the air came Gonzalez, who met the ball at its apex and crashed it into the net at 36:28.
The Coogs kept the pressure on via Flores and Martinez, coming close minutes after the goal, but La Joya, thus challenged, responded.
Roman’s brother, Francisco, has been around and illustrated Moran’s idea about experience as he was briefly beaten in his own third before recovering to make the defensive play. A handball on North gave the visitor a free kick from the 11-yard line but it sailed over, one of a couple of chances La Joya spurned in the half. In the midfield, Brandon Saenz now made a good step-in to win possession but another save was needed as the Coyotes advanced again. This time it was Jacob Roman tracking back to get involved.
Further upfield, winger Eliseo Villafuerte, an aggressive left-footer, was finding some traction, and he started a sequence on which Flores located a streaking Martinez, whose shot went wide.
La Joya, a perennial playoff contender like North, was starting to find the mark a bit now, and it took a header clearance from Montano to put out a fire on 25 minutes, and the same Cougar now worked overtime with three solid defensive plays in a row. Alvarez, now a junior in his third season as starting net-minder, went down and to his left to thwart a La Joya try and seconds later, the Coyotes took advantage of a lapse to fire a bullet that hit the top of the stanchion behind the net. On 20 minutes came the closest call yet as an enemy pulled a pass back right across the face of goal, only to find that no runner in white had made the dash.
As La Joya continued to press, Rivas bulled in to use his body for a resounding block and it seemed that North was trying to control the ball and get into the attack once more, after a fierce period from the Coyotes.
But first, Alvarez came up big again, punching a shot over the bar at the 13-minute mark, and when La Joya next advanced, Rivas barreled in to tackle and clear. He is an old-fashioned hard man of old, this Rivas.
In the latter stages of the half, a call went La Joya’s way and the Coyotes sneaked over to take the free kick early, nearly slotting home a shot. Less than seven minutes to go in the half now, and the visitor duplicated the header feat of North’s Gonzalez with its own set piece goal.
Thus sobered, North managed a strong run from Villafuerte leading to an attempt on goal from Flores, and then J. Roman went high with a cross. At the end, a super long ball by North rose into the air and bounced in front of the keeper, but over the bar.
DOWN, NOT OUT
As the second half began, midfielder Jonathan Jauregui was front and center, and would be putting himself about, as they say, the entire 40 minutes with grit and determination, and no little strength.
Early in the half, Martinez sprinted down and made a fabulous catch of a 40-yard ball; his timing and footwork are first class in his second season with the club. In the midsection, J. Roman wheeled around to redirect a loose ball far into the attacking third and eventually F. Roman fashioned a shot after a free kick.
The Coyotes weathered this storm and came with a tricky inbounds play, almost catching the North D out when the toss went straight into the box, near post, where luckily Alvarez was there to pounce. Ten minutes in and there was Martinez, weaving past two defenders to crack off a monster of a shot, which barely missed producing the go-ahead goal.
As La Joya reloaded, Rivas was able to steam over for a sliding tackle, then pop back up and move into position in front of goal; outstanding sequence there. F. Roman, too, was on the slide now, zooming in to stop a La Joya play, and then, an odd thing: LJ was whistled for an illegal throw, and so was North on the throw after the bad throw. Rare.
Now, controversy, as Villafuerte sliced a superb ball right over the defense, with Martinez running deftly onto it, headed for a 1-on-1 with the keeper. But Martinez was flagged for offside, much to the dismay of Moran and the North supporters, who had begun a steady dialogue with the match official, an excitable little chap who was in the middle of occasional mayhem on Tuesday.
The Coyotes rallied after this reprieve, gunning to a second goal at 24:28, and on the Coog side, a surprising burst of cheers for La Joya: given by the Lady Coyote footballers who were jogging past on their way back to the other side, when the ball went in.
Now down 2-1, North really went to work, forgetting about the past and planning for the future. In the final 20 minutes, Moran’s bunch was to control the run of play and create a series of opportunities. First it was the speedy Flores, jetting into a turn-and-run but eventually running out of real estate at the byline. Then J. Roman cracked one goalward, seeing it fly high at 17:50. After having had some earlier possession problems in the mids, the Coogs were now faster to the 50-50s late in the match, their conditioning sound.
Jauregui got on the ball and produced a heavy strike, and at 16:50, it started to feel like a goal was lurking, La Joya scrambling to hold on. After a Montano steal, up came the Coogs, with first Villafuerte and then Martinez taking a crack at goal, to no avail. At the 13-minute mark, J. Roman spun out of trouble beautifully and then got off a shot that floated past.
Martinez wanted to make the difference and he did, going from a sliding tackle to possession of the ball and a full head of steam. As the play continued, Martinez ended up with the ball and was expert in dispatching the chance for the equalizer at 7:43. Flores, as stated, was the passer on that connection, as Moran’s group fought back and seized the moment, as he had discussed before the first kick.
La Joya had a shot on target off a free kick, supplied by another iffy call, handball, on the Old Gold. But Alvarez was equal to the task to preserve the deadlock with four minutes remaining in what was a briskly played match. When Flores ran to a corner kick, Montano and F. Roman got a piece of the ensuing boot, but La Joya held. As the PKs loomed, La Joya almost pulled off the smash and grab, missing the winner by inches with a minute to go. The last moment of the regular 80 was seized by Montano, who stomped over to make a vital defensive play, and as La Joya lined up for the final kick, a corner … time ran out!
After Villafuerte, Martinez, and J. Roman converted their spot kicks, La Joya clanking the bar once, it was briefly 3-1, Coogs. Though Alvarez guessed right on just about every remaining try, nearly saving two of them, the Coyotes climbed back in. Rivas roofed his penalty with a flourish but when North had a PK saved, the Coyotes converted to end it and ease into two points.
Still, it was an encouraging performance from Moran’s men, the veterans proving they’ve still got it, some youngsters steadily progressing up the learning curve. North could have cratered when it went behind 2-1 but instead redoubled its efforts to fight back in and re-tie it late in the second half. Keep an eye on the Coogs this season, and also keep an eye on Econ-EHS, a long and bitter rivalry that resumes Friday at Jags.
That doubleheader will start with the boys and then continue with the Econ and EHS girls, both of whom recorded triumphs on opening night. Meanwhile, the Vela boys kept their recent thrust going by claiming a 3-2 win over Pioneer Tuesday. The Vela girls ended the first half of play in 31-5A with a tight result over Pioneer, 2-1, and hold the top spot in that murderous league, halfway home.