March 10, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The main valve of pressure was on mute when North and Econ squared off Friday night, because both girls’ soccer teams had already clinched a postseason berth. The Lady Jags came over to North having already celebrated the program’s first district championship since 2016, accomplished with a week to go in the regular season. The Lady Cougars knew they would be in the bracket somewhere and were hoping to perhaps squeeze into the three seed from 31-6A.
The other kind of pressure, not quite low key, was about the Rivalry. These two have faced each other many times in the past, almost 50 matches dating back to 2001, and always enjoy trying to take the measure of the other. So while the match was less meaningful, in the sense of standings, it was all important in terms of good old-fashioned pride. What you got? Bring it!
Econ, in storming to the district title behind new coach Kristie Jarquin, had allowed just four goals in nine league outings, as a power pack of a defense has been beyond solid. The offense has turned on the hustle and skill of Jackie Maldonado up front. North, meanwhile has continued to refurbish the longstanding and winning tradition set by former coach Danny Valdez with a former player of his, Marianna Watson, in charge for the past two runs. Both the coaches would not admit that Friday was anything but vital. And they were right.
“We know they’re going to come out and play hard,” Jarquin noted before the kickoff. “We’re going to do the same, we want to play every game the same way: hard, together, and fighting for each other.”
For her part, Watson spent the pregame praising the efforts of her gutty squad, from goalkeeper Belen Santana to defender Jade Ortiz, saying that though the Lady Coogs were coming off a disappointing penalty kicks loss to EHS Tuesday, the girls have done their best to have a memorable season, and she has not been at all dissatisfied with their performance.
With the stage set for the first half of the doubleheader to finish the district schedule, the rivals came out and heaved into 80 minutes of hard-nosed action, uneven at times but never lacking the edge and intensity that these two have always shown when paired up. The champions assumed a 1-nil lead late in the first half and appeared to be ready to win for the eighth time in 10 31-6A contests, until the Lady Coogs, in the midst of a furious rally, produced the equalizing goal in the final stages of the night and went on to capture a madcap PK victory.
Still, the Lady Jags, who had been nipped in penalties by La Joya Tuesday, will represent the district as top seed, against either Rivera or Weslaco, after Spring Break, while North is in against Harlingen, the No. 1 seed from 32-6A. EHS, which finished second in the league, three points behind the Orange, will advance to bi-district for a bout versus Weslaco or Rivera. Additionally, with Vela assured a three seed out of 31-6A, all four ECISD sides will be in the playoffs to cap what has been a competitive and entertaining soccer season, one of the best in recent times.
The Lady Coogs had extra incentive Friday, as it was Senior Night, during which Watson introduced her graduating girls with aplomb, noting that there would not be any crying during the touching moments. More or less following her own mandate. In two seasons with her alma mater, the youthful mentor has proven to be determined and prepared, growing wiser by the week.
Jarquin, meanwhile, sent her dogged band of hustlers out to the green knowing what she was getting.
“We’re not the fastest team, really, but we get where we need to get, do what we need to do,” said the coach. “We’ve been working a lot on spatial awareness, being at the right place at the right time. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, stocky or whatever. The way we see it, if you can play, you can play.”
The tone was obvious from the start Friday as the Lady Jags looked to pound the ball forward and get Maldonado onto it in space down the channels. North was going to dig in and defend, looking for the counter and trying to spring speed merchant senior Sam Aguilar on the wings. This is how it started, as Aguilar raced downfield right and created a shot for midfielder Diana Flores right off the bat. Flores was to have an active night of combat, battling for possession in the middle of the park and shooting stern passes deep into the teeth of the Lady Jag defense. Waiting for the Lady Coogs would be The Wall, Dulce Martinez, who was paired with Mayte Ruiz, as usual partner Desiree Martinez was sidelined with a concussion. The clutch Ruiz was among the match’s best performers Friday, roaming the pitch to deny Econ opportunities and coming up with many successes on that count.
Playing with real desire, though, North came up again to a corner, forced by freshman Priscilla Rodriguez, who had some strong moments Friday, especially in the second half. Aguilar nearly bundled in the ensuing set piece on 34 minutes, but could not, whereupon Econ rolled out to a counter.
They get there fast when they do, and now Maldonado appeared to be in, until Lady Coog Ortiz got there to tackle. Watson loves the way Ortiz works, nonstop fight, and she jokes that even when the bespectacled sophomore gets her glasses knocked around, Ortiz will just throw them back on and keep going. Ortiz was fantastic in the clincher, taking some serious licks but popping back up without hesitation. She played inspired football Friday.
The early action was back and forth, as Aguilar zoomed forward, only to be knocked off the ball by Martinez. The Lady Jags took the rock and came down for a pop to the box by senior Reyna Vazquez and then North threw a blow. Nifty midfielder Nathalia Ortiz, who has come on fast during the latter stages of the season, combined with Aguilar, resulting in a shot from Ortiz on 30 minutes. Solidly built and with excellent ball skills, junior N. Ortiz had a sharp showing in the regular season finale, bossing her section of the field.
But with Maldonado fighting around the wingers and running to goal consistently, it seemed that the Lady Jags might be able to score first, and for this side, an early goal is tonic: the defense has been almost impenetrable in 2023; one goal is often enough. Angela Elizondo got the play going with a booming ball, and Maldonado got close on 26 minutes. Minutes later, Steffy Moreno of the Jags was loose for a shot, but J. Ortiz of North again steamed over to make contact and gum up the works. As North weathered the storm, a high ball from Elizondo bounced lazily to the right corner, and nobody chased it at first … hey … it’s in!
It was all Econ at the midway mark and it took a clearance from J. Ortiz, a sidewinder of a boot, to stop the threat, but still the Lady Jags advanced, with freshman Natalie Barrios firing a powerful throw-in that led to a laser centering pass by Maldonado. It roared across the goal face but could not find a runner to send it home.
News. It turns out that besides Jackie and GK Joselin Maldonado, there is a third sister of the fam out for Econ football, and it’s Gabrielle Maldonado, a freshman who has some size, speed, and ability. A prospect. She now began another Lady Jag sequence, finding Moreno with a pass that eventuated in an attempt on goal from Anahi Luna, on 14 minutes. North was defending with fearsome determination, and now found a smidgen of offensive space.
N. Ortiz, popping the ball off her head and down, controlled nicely and located Aguilar, who is always in motion, going somewhere in a hurry. The Econ D held its ground and back came Maldonado, to blast a 30-yard rocket that sailed just high and wide. Whoosh! The match seemed headed for a scoreless first half until 9:12, when a Lady Jag corner eluded the keeper’s grasp, dropping free for the newcomer Maldonado to poke home for an Econ surprise goal. Her teammates joked afterward that Gaby almost didn’t know she had scored, as it happened so fast and she is so new to the varsity game. But nonetheless, there was the Third Maldonado, jogging back upfield with a wide, wide grin. The goal had been coming, as they say, Econ having pressured the Lady Coogs most of the half. Though J. Ortiz and steady center back Ruby Torres had played very well, the champs had grabbed the lead.
FORTY MINUTES, AND THEN SOME
The final half began with Jackie Maldonado on the warpath, working to an attempt two minutes in, but North answered with a run by senior Yamilet De Jesus Landa, and it took a sure step-in from Martinez of Econ to stop her. De Jesus Landa then engaged in a collision with Elizondo in orange and white, and the latter stayed up after the smash, the North gal taking a tumble but showing bravery and toughness. The Lady Coogs seemed to be galvanized by the sequence, as N. Ortiz got back on the ball and looked for teammates on the fly. North was stopped by Ruiz of the Lady Jags, who fed to Elizondo, got it back from the aggressive defensive mid, and off went the Orange again. Torres of North was able to slip over and break up the chance, as she has done so many times this season and last. She and J. Ortiz are perhaps smallish for the backline, but they are smart, quick, and execute perfect tackling technique.
Seven minutes in, Maldonado’s cross left to right was fielded by Moreno, who hammered a shot over the goal, and Econ is faster than you think, believe it. Their burly lineup of enforcers can move!
Now the match was physical, with Flores of North clobbering and looking for the long slicing through ball, Elizondo using her strength and moxie to keep that from happening. There were many such battles Friday, as the rivals collided full force and the officials scampered up and down, trying to keep up.
When Econ produced the next fast break chance, it almost paid off until senior Xitlalic Herrera of North romped over to clear away.
“Let’s go offense! We’re there!” hollered injured Desiree Martinez, who stalked the sidelines next to her coach, giving instructions and encouragement to her sisters, and snapping a few photographs to boot.
And yet it was the North offense starting to show signs, as Flores and Aguilar pinged it back and forth on the way to the box, Dulce Martinez getting there just in time to spoil the move. Rodriguez of North then pounced on a loose ball in the area, leading to a Lady Coog corner on 24 minutes. Freshman Alexa Vargas managed a shot attempt off the restart, and Watson’s club was gaining momentum.
Another huge feed from Flores nearly played Aguilar in, but Econ recovered and came back to a Vazquez dribble drive and a cross from Moreno. Santana was ready in goal for North and the Lady Coogs tumbled back downfield, a sizzling ball from Flores whizzing past the Lady Jag defense. Still no goal, 20 minutes left. Teams churning, striving, giving it all.
From the 40-yard line, Flores launched a free kick which Aguilar clipped onward near the goal, resulting in a shot from Flores, who had followed quickly into the area after her kick. Sophomore Elizabeth Carrillo was involved in the action now for North, and she created a try on goal from Aguilar, but still, Econ held. It was all home side now, with Watson’s group getting a one-bouncer to the keeper off a restart from N. Ortiz, and an Ortiz-to-Carrillo pass setting up Rodriguez on the right. Looking good, North, the Lady Jags clinging to the one-goal lead. Rodriguez popped up on the left now at the 10-minute mark as Watson pulled out all the stops to try and level accounts.
It came down to a free kick at 6:34, and the senior leader, Aguilar, was queen of the night, shooting across the box right to left, running onto the ball and clipping a side-foot finish with her right boot, just about from distance! A truly magnificent goal!
Late on, the Lady Coogs almost won it, in attempts to avenge a 3-0 defeat suffered to the Orange during round one, but Martinez of the Lady Jags got some timely assistance from the agile Ruiz to bring it to penalties.
Before the extra session, though, these two foes gave a final illustration of what the game meant. Less than a minute left, first, J. Ortiz and Maldonado clashed like rams on the mountain, one last time, hip to shoulder. Wham! Then, Flores pushed for one more try, Elizondo slamming over to clear the ball with one of her best volleys. Superb action Friday, and they would share the points.
North always likes its chances with the sublime shot-stopper Santana in goal, and six of its 10 31-6A matches ended in extras. But Econ has risen to the title this season thanks in no small part to Joselin Maldonado in net. The Lady Coogs got slots home from Herrera and N. Ortiz, while the visitor made one but was saved by Santana. Maldonado then stopped one from North but the Orange subsequently had a penalty gloved by Santana, giving the Lady Coogs the avenue to victory they eventually navigated. Flores and Torres were true with their blasts and the PKs went to North, 4-2 final advantage.
To restate, the match did not change the standings, as Econ is the queen of the hill, fair and square. But North showed the kind of grit its coach has been nurturing in her kids, from day one.
“We didn’t quit, and this is what happens when you keep fighting,” said the proud Lady Coog ex. “We showed the heart we needed; they didn’t want the other team to celebrate by winning in our house. I think we deserved what we got tonight, and now we’re going to get ready for the playoffs.”
Aguilar, who has been a standout on the pitch since freshman year, was whipped after spending 80 minutes sprinting and dealing with the formidable Lady Jag defense.
“It’s been an up and down year really, we’ve had a lot of games we probably should have won, but we didn’t,” she remarked. “But, we’re glad to get this one and head to the playoffs. Never give up, fight to the end, that’s what we say. And things like this can happen if you keep doing that, playing until the end.”