SAN JUAN — The Cougars were stunned and then ecstatic, and they carried an unlikely hero off the field here Friday as their coach tried to explain an improbable comeback win.
“We haven’t done that around here lately, we have lost some leads but we haven’t come back,” said a weary Joe Gaspar after his unit scored three times in the final 14 minutes to beat a very talented P-SJ-A team, 3-2. “I told the guys they had to come back, they’d had as many shots as the Bears in the second half, and they just had to keep working at it.”
As he spoke, Manny Gonzalez, a sometime starter, was the man of the hour after his long rebound shot found the back of the net with a mere four seconds left in the game to cap a superb show of guts by North, now 2-0 in District 31-5A and 9-4-1 overall.
“That guy, I had to call for him late in the game,” said Gaspar of the junior Gonzalez, whose miracle goal followed twin tallies by speedy sophomore Alex Gutierrez at 14:05 and 9:39. The Bears had notched the supposed money shot at 7:53, only to be called for offside, setting the stage for a torrid stretch run when superstar Cesar Barajas came close to a winner on a free kick at 1:32. “I said, ‘Are you hiding?’ But he went in and showed he was ready to play.”
It was a stirring win for a club that had started the league slate with a 4-0 blowout of Harlingen Tuesday, and it set the Coogs up for their first test against the four-time defending champ Jags of Econ, Tuesday on the road. The Bears had outplayed them in the first half, displaying magnificent touches, precision passing, and more hustle.
The first P-SJ-A score came when goalkeeper Jordan Quiroz was shielded by a Bear forward as a through ball whizzed into the zone at 20:13. Earlier, Barajas, who went down hard in the first but returned to action after a rest, nearly broke the ice on a feed from Gutierrez. The latter was injured much of last year but comes well advertised as a superior ballhandler with amazingly quick feet.
With two goals against P-SJ-A, the pint-sized wizard - younger brother of former school standout Paige Gutierrez and last campaign’s Valley Newcomer of the Year Sammie Gutierrez - showed that he and the Coogs are a team to be reckoned with once again this season.
After that subpar first-half performance, where it allowed a second mark with two minutes remaining, North came out strong to try and carve into the 2-nil margin, as Gutierrez centered perfectly from the right and Josue Morales narrowly missed a sliding winner at 37:00. Morales, whose older brother Jose was a starter for two seasons before graduating in 2009, stole one soon after as the Coogs got busy, won more balls than they had in the first, and seemed ready to rumble.
Morales missed high on a solid try at the 30-minute mark and then Alan Alfaro, a soph who like Gutierrez had exhibited excellent promise last year before a season-ending injury, banged one off the scoreboard for an exciting miss.
Though they controlled the mids and got good defensive play from lanky Eduardo Reyes, time was running out for the Coogs. But Gutierrez made it 2-1, Bears, and less than five minutes later he broke out of the pack, deking the keeper with a nasty fake and waltzing in unmolested for the equalizer.
Then, as the teams were preparing for overtime on a chilly night, Gonzalez made the play of the year, fielding a ricochet 30 yards out and launching a rocket that engineered the team’s first comeback of 2010.
NOTES: Econ rushed to 2-0 with a 6-0 demolition of Harlingen South Friday with senior Abel Farias scoring three times for the Jags, 9-3-3 overall heading into Tuesday’s showdown with North. Freshman Angel Duran added a tally.