After his coach had given his take on Edinburg North’s 2-0 win at home against Mission Veterans Monday night, Wally De la Paz took the floor. Speaking in serious tones, in Spanish, gesturing strongly at times, De la Paz held forth for a few minutes. He told his teammates that they had been excellent at both ends of the field, and that they needed to keep up the good work with a tough non-district match against perennial playoff favorite Brownsville soon to come, Friday in fact.
Given the killer game the junior wing crafted against Vets, it was no surprise to note that to a man, the Cougars were listening intently. Dominating the left side like the seasoned veteran he is, De la Paz was far the most impressive player on the field; he had a hand in both the team’s goals, one in each half, and his one-on-two escapes with incredibly deft footwork were things of beauty. Gawking at his booming, accurate centering passes have become routine for the Coogs the past two seasons, and so too has their admiration for his hammering shots from the wing.
But Coach Joe Gaspar noted that so far in 2008-09, De la Paz has taken his game to a whole other level. And while he was talking partially in terms of ability, Gaspar was quick to add that as a leader, De la Paz has come of age.
“He has been killing them all season like that,” said the coach, whose squad improved to 7-2-1 overall. “But these days, Wally has also become a leader out there, he doesn’t get mad at the other players like he occasionally used to, he’s a mature guy who the kids look up to and depend on.”
Not that the curly-headed De la Paz was a bad seed in previous years; he was just so much more advanced than his mates, he tended to get impatient when they didn’t keep up with his sublime play on the pitch.
Monday, after Veterans pressed to an early momentum edge with some nice, quick starts and swift, sure passes, De la Paz took over. Helped by a fine effort from sophomore defender Manny Gonzalez - who had five stops/takeaways in the initial 40 minutes - the junior De la Paz began to rush down the left side, sidestepping defenders with cool moves on ball, and sprinting out of trouble.
He continually got into range down in the corner and sent a number of rockets into the zone, as forwards Jorge Rivera and Jordan Quiroz set up down low. Both those kids are tall underclassmen who can strike with the best; Rivera was last year’s surprise as a sweeper, earning All-District honors, while Quiroz, a lanky opportunist, is among the leading goal-scorers in the league this winter.
With Rivera moved up front due to several missing players, including Virgil Pena, Emmanuel Oliva, and Alex Gutierrez, the tandem clicked well. De la Paz fired a winging center ball that Rivera poked at; his tip went straight to the trailing Quiroz, who cleaned up with a tip of his own which found the net at 15:45 of the half.
Though he appeared to tweak a knee late in the half, De la Paz recovered well enough to hustle the length of the field to make a key defensive stop at the 1:00 mark.
“That’s Wally, he can be everywhere,” Gaspar said. “But wherever we play him, he ends up in the same place a lot, down the left side. That’s his spot, and from there he is dangerous.”
The Coogs, whose only losses are to out-of-Valley teams so far, dominated the half after coming out a bit sluggish, with rugged Jose Morales having an eventful half on defense. They kept the run alive in the second, shutting off all but a handful of Patriot chances while De la Paz was more than masterful. He simply outclassed the Vets D, dribbling through and around it, making beautiful feeds - some carrying over 30 yards at a try — and with only five minutes elapsed in the second, he struck paydirt again.
Controlling left, he left two men in the dust with a nifty fake, and launched one 35 yards in the air for a streaking Rivera, who made the pickup right-to-left neatly and popped it in for the 2-0 lead.
North was home free from there, as its defense held well and De la Paz continued to put on a clinic in touch-and-go. It was his best performance of the year, and maybe ever. Yet Gaspar praised the entire team afterward, and with ample reason. Vets (5-3-3) came in with victories against EHS, Weslaco, and McAllen Memorial, plus a tie versus Brownville Hanna, which recently captured the Corpus Tournament title.
“This is the way you have to play every game, the other team was scrappy, they came out attacking with everything they had, and you came back and did the same to them,” he commented. “If we play that way all the time, we can get to the next level. It was a tremendous game and I am proud of you guys.”
Later, Gaspar reiterated that De la Paz — who will not have another season even though he’s a junior, because he will be too old when the next campaign begins — has been the difference this season so far. He smiled when asked about his star’s postgame address to the unit.
“He’s been so positive in the way he’s interacted with the others,” Gaspar said. “I hope he keeps this up, and I think he will. He’s just a super soccer player.”