March 10, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Watching the winners go after the trophy – when the trying race is won, the spoils at hand – is a rare and excellent thing, pure exuberance and joy. To win a championship is to say that none was better, that you’ve stood the tests of time and come out on top. And when you can say that, you say it with zest, happily. So when the Jaguars had finished their business, i.e., a 2-1 victory over North that earned them the District 31-6A championship, they were ready to party!
Never a more joyous throng of kids, the East Siders danced down the rows of bleachers on the visitors’ side, their fans straining low for a maybe palm-smack, people shouting and everyone beaming. Noise! The players themselves looked as if they were trotting on air, their smiles were bright, eyes full of stars. Yes, Econ went electric Friday, as after falling behind the speedy Cougars painfully early in the night, the Jags stood up like champions, began to regain their composure and control, and eventually pushed through to win the ring. North was fierce and determined throughout; as this match had been advertised, it was for all the marbles, the crown, and the Coogs were every bit the Jags’ toughest foe of the league campaign.
In the end, the Orange held off an incredible late surge of desire from the home side Cougars, and at whistle, the Econ players mobbed each other, shook the hands of North, and went into dream mode. Winning the trophy means all the more for this program when one considers that the Jags were once the toughest cats on the hunt per city soccer teams. The program went to 17 postseasons prior to 2020 and was always the most feared rival – feared for its great skill, unflinching confidence, and iron will – but had fallen upon pretty hard times.
They had missed the playoffs two seasons in a row, and frankly for a school that has always prided itself on football expertise, it was hard to handle.
Enter Coach Juan Rodriguez, the first-year mentor of the Orange, and now, after the kids have risen to the heights they have come to expect, after they’ve bought into what the new and capable man was giving, they are kings of the league.
“I came in here and told them, ‘Hey, our goal is to win the district title,’” said Rodriguez, whose side will now take on Harlingen in bi-district, after Spring Break. “We wanted to change the program, get back to winning, and they had to have the pride and the belief. These guys have worked hard, practiced hard, it’s like a family really. They developed the discipline we needed to win the district.”
All three 6A sides from town made the playoffs, as No. 2 North will face Brownsville Hanna, and EHS – having squeezed in with a late rush of epic proportions – gets a bi-district clash against Brownsville Rivera, champ from 32-6A. But the Jags took center stage Friday, beating back every North attempt to take command, using their passing skills and anticipation, and their seamless mesh, to excel toward the prize. After a 3-2 win over the Coogs during the first half of league play, the Jags were trying to do it again, this time on the road, and with the silverware at stake.
The defense, which has been under the gun in some high-scoring encounters in the league, was at its best against North, with burly Angel Limon, full of guile and composure, leading the back line. North was to have its chances in this deciding match, but almost every time the dangerous Coogs of Elias Moran got close, the keeper was master. Econ’s Ponciano Vazquez, no stranger to pressure, was to make four key saves down the stretch, as North strained for the equalizer. Diving to his right on a pair of late tries from the Coogs, Vazquez kept the ball out with tremendous timing.
In all, it was a fantastic night, a packed house of loud and vibrant people. North resurrected the traditional porra, and its drumbeats punctuated 80 minutes of speed, aggression. The Cougars were ecstatic to welcome back Keneth Reyes, the defensive prodigy who has missed most of the slate through injury. Though obviously a bit rusty, Reyes quickly grew into the game with his familiar talents, and by the second half he was up in the midfield, keying the North attack. Bienvenido, 23.
It could have gone either way, right to the end, all you could ask for from a city showdown for the right to climb the mountain and reign. Both North and Econ are playoff bound, bound to vie for more glories. But Friday, the Jags stood foremost, having climbed from the bottom (basically, seventh in a 9-team 6A district last year), having embraced a leader they clearly respect, and having made it back into the winner’s circle once again. Good times to be a Jag, as the girls salted away their trophy last week, too, making the school a one-year double champ in the sport for the very first time.
MATCH OF THE YEAR
North, which had dropped a penalty shootout to another rival, EHS, Tuesday, was plainly bent on erasing the memory, and the first 10-minute patch was a veritable blitzkrieg, the Cougars racing into the attacking third with abandon. Jesus Martinez, he of the twin 4-goal games in 2023, was poking around looking for space while Anthony Flores, speedy as ever but now more solidly built as a veteran, was so close to scoring right off the bat. A couple of long balls from the North back and the twin strikers were on the march. Flores sped into the right corner to deliver a delicious cross as he went over the endline, and on the other end of this art piece was an opportunistic Francisco Roman.
When Roman smashed the ball home at 37:39, the entire starting 11 for North careened way over to the sideline, where they collided wildly with coaches and teammates in an organic moment of celebration. Get the first goal. Check.
A shock goal sure livens up a match, and yet this one did not need any help in the hype category, please trust. Folks had been talking about the showdown for a few days, on both sides, back and forth, just say that. Football fans are that way. Brilliant!
So here were the Jags, who had come so far, sacrificed so much, seeing their dreams get a tad blurry. How would they respond? It took a while for Econ to subdue the mad dash of the Coogs, and for half the half on Friday the Orange passes were flatter, horizontal, side to side, not yet able to get upfield with any real intent. North had come to press in the early going, and Econ was scrambling, working out of the back with several blueclad pests all up in their business.
With Rene Galvan prowling the midfield, the Jags came on, as the rangy veteran weaved his way through with long strides, head up and finding teammates. Galvan created a free kick but Reyes and the defense of North were able to stop the damage. When North countered it was fast, as Roman fed a running Flores, who was only foiled by a last-ditch defending effort from sophomore Eduardo Leal of the Jags. Now North kept the force on as Flores was fouled 15 yards outside the box, but the Jags held firm on 30 minutes. Action, intense, now.
By the 25-minute mark, the Jags had stabilized and thus began to find their spaces in the final third, the passes coming quicker, farther downfield. Also known as Vertical.
And like midnight, a 1-1 score as junior J.C. Rios got loose inside; when his shot was parried, on came Randy Galvan, flying like an eagle to the ball and putting it home at 24:05. The massive roar that went up from the Orange side, and it was truly massive, was answered seconds later by an equally vociferous display of pride from Coog Country. Brilliant again!
Now Rodriguez’ kids were feeling it and as anyone will tell you, when the Jags get jamming, it’s going to be something. Trouble. Connecting on crisp 1-2’s and using the 3-man triangle, the visitor danced downfield with steel grace, carving up the Coogs, who were now the ones scrambling. Almost like a quick change of weather, blowing in with sudden fury, the mood had turned, and one sensed the Jags starting to glow up.
Bryan Garcia battled his way through two and three defenders Friday, as the Coogs sought to try and find the dangerous Econ playmaker before he could find them. But now came the stocky wizard, clipping through to earn a free kick. It did not connect and North flew down with the rebound, Roman and his bro, Jacob, combining to advance it. Flores looked likely on the right, and the Jags, breathing heavily after their counter, barely managed to survive the threat North’s.
Once in possession again, Econ enjoyed the exploits of Jesus Gallegos, who has a little of everything in his bag. He’s quick, pretty strong, sure on the ball, and heroic in the air. Nice player there.
But Martinez of North was nicer now, as he slalomed through multiple defenders in the box, seeming trapped at one point but wriggling out of a double team like a snake, darting around a third guy and suddenly emerging to slide a ball back across the box. Nah, he didn’t. Bro. Clowned ‘em.
It was like that now, as every possession gave a thrill to the throbbing crowd. For Econ, next up was freshman sensation Jose Villarreal, whose calm on the ball and ability to control it with ease, all impressive. He took a pass from Rene Galvan and cruised into the North side, light as air, but again, the North crew was ready.
The Coogs had to be ready because Econ was sizzling, Galvans gliding here and there, Garcia in the middle lurking like a nightmare. A block from Reyes turned away a Jag shot, and then North’s Martin Montano was equal to a challenge in deep. Montano again was on the spot as the Jags rushed forward with the ball once more, and as the half waned, North was holding on. Lanky Erick Gonzalez had a good game for the Coogs, smashing a handful of goal kicks into the night, and his height was a definite advantage on defense of set pieces.
The Jags kept blistering the ball at Adrian Alvarez in net for North but could not make another dent. Late on, Armando Del Angel – a promising footballer who has been limited by injury – stung the keeper’s hands with a wicked shot. Del Angel was to play a prominent role in the second half for the would-be champs.
The last moment of the half was breathtaking, after Garcia of Econ fooled them all on reception of a powerful long ball from Limon in back. Catching and turning, Garcia then crashed a buzzer-beater of a shot with the laces of his boot that looked goalbound until just veering off at the last minute.
Halftime, nothing decided, excitement hanging in the air, 40 minutes to see who’s who.
THE TROPHY BECKONS
North came out and got back to work, and Moran has always stressed the mental side of the game with his charges. His teams never quit, and now was going to be some battle, because the Jags were also brimming with belief, feeling the prize so much closer. Two fine sides, neck and neck, fighting for every inch of the turf. Best.
The Coogs, as they had done early in the first, high-stepped to an early chance, Flores beating a pair of defenders to a strong shot from a mildly acute angle, right, an effort that went flashing over. Four minutes in, a mistake! in the back from the Jags went unpunished, Flores of the Coogs again making a terrific run into the box to get near the goal. With defense called for, Econ relied now on the tall veteran, Erick Obregon, and he went up to head one away, long legs trailing his body as he leapt. His clearance led to a runout from Rene Galvan, who popped it back and forth with Garcia on the way: looked like a training drill as those two whipped into action. At the last minute, rugged Jose Nino came over to break the play up for North. They get the ball moving quickly afield, do the Jags. On Nino’s defensive play, though, the Orange retained possession and Villarreal, angling up to the edge of the box, discovered that the Coogs were not coming to close him down as quickly as they might. Hmmm. The cool young kid just touched once, wound up and smashed one, against the fair wind, and it launched into the air on a clean line, swerving just slightly as it eased past a leaping keeper for a simply colossal goal, the ever hoped for, much anticipated golazo. Was this ever a golazo!! Insane. Hello, destiny calling … in the biggest match, you get the biggest goal, from the freshman … meant to be, dog, some might say.
So the great goal from Villarreal and yet wait … only seven minutes gone in the half. That’s a lot of football left, as any old salt will tell ye. So back they went, Jags and Coogs, into constant contact and competition. The sides outdid themselves with effort Friday. One of the finest matches in years.
The Jags had done a great job on Martinez so far, as the lightning striker could not get much of an opportunity to operate. He spent a tough night taking on two and three defenders, and with good reason: when he is on, Martinez is deadly. His rush created a shot from Flores, and maybe the Coogs were going to make this an even deal. Flores rode through some beefy challenges to get close on 29 minutes, but Limon was everywhere for the Jags, throwing his weight into tackles but more often using nimble feet to sidle out of harm’s way. Limon was marvelous.
A little less than 15 minutes in to the second half came one of the plays that was of note, as North came down and appeared to push across a goal, Martinez heading in beautifully off a Jacob Roman offering. Wow! Offside was the call from the ref, amid much discontent from the North contingent. The equalizer, borne of a fine football play executed perfectly, and now, chalked off was that equalizer. A bitter blow for the Coogs and in minutes, the tempers flared on both sides, leading to sanctions for caution, one for each rival.
With the match on the line, Moran called his returning defender, Reyes, up into the midfield and beyond, and immediately Reyes began to marshal the attack. This was to be North’s final heroic stand, because the Coogs wanted the trophy as much as the Jags. Kicking bullets downfield and pushing mammoth throws from the touchline, Reyes proved he is 100 percent back from injury. He and the North brethren almost pulled off the comeback. At 20 minutes, Ponciano hit the deck to knock away a sure goal, but Randy Galvan then exited with an injury. Still, Econ was undaunted.
Reyes earned a free kick past the midline, and soon it was J. Roman, banging one off the crossbar. North was gaining joy with passes around the corner, on which the Coogs let the ball run or helped it along with a slight flick. Total vertical approach. The Jags were tiring on defense but Obregon seized the moment with a key block. Time and again advanced the home side, desperate to knot the score. But in the waning minutes, Econ grabbed back momentum. Having turned away the best that North had to offer, the Jags regained mastery of the ball and ran much of the clock down.
The Coogs were down to it now, and as the match ended they got a chance in the box, only to have the trusty Garcia whip over and clear with a mighty right-footed swing.
Finished. Champions again, Econ!
As was relayed, the celebration was joyous and rambunctious, though Rodriguez noted to his happy kids that more picture-taking would take place once they had gotten back to school. In the glow of victory, Obregon stated his case, gave some answers.
“It’s all about the team, we play together and we win together,” said the valiant defender, who as much as anyone has wanted to resurrect the spirit of the Jags. “We’ve worked really hard this year, we always practice very rough too. This is what we said we were going to do and look at us now! Coach has been great at teaching us discipline.”
Randy Galvan, the elusive trickster with the cannon shot, was limping a little postgame, but still was effervescent, as were all the Jags on such a memorable night.
“We’re more disciplined this season, more organized,” he said. “Coach is always disciplined with is, but he’s calm too. And he knows our abilities very well. Last year was rough for us, but we are way better now.”