It’s just the way it is in the first week of the year. Getting kids back into uniform before the semester officially begins can be difficult for high school soccer coaches. With or without their seldom-seens, the city teams started scrimmage work last week, intent on matching last year’s grand success, when four of the six local units made the postseason.

The North Cougars traveled down Alamo Road to take on P-SJ-A Memorial Friday night, minus a couple of their leaders. Wally De la Paz, the dynamite junior, was still AWOL along with defensive ace Jorge Rivera and ballhandler Cookie Vazquez. But with them gone, and injured stars Alex Gutierrez, Noe Serna and Alan Alfaro hanging about in street clothes, North got to take a long look at the rest of the crew.

The Coogs, on first glance, may be the favorite to win District 31-5A, although as stated, this season is in its infancy. Minus so many guys, they still shot out to a 3-0 lad against the Wolverines before surrendering three late goals in a five-minute span in the second half to settle for the tie.

Serna, one of the team’s best goal scorers, is out indefinitely with a knee injury; his projections on a return to action are more modest than those of his teammates, who already miss his upbeat, active game and uncanny knack for sneaking in for the score. He gave his analysis of the latest Cougar bunch, and by all accounts, it is a potentially dominant one.

“I’m righty, but I like to shot with the left, and that’s the one I hurt,” said Serna, who went down during the athletic period late in the fall. “But even without me, I think we have a really good team this year. Maybe I’ll be back for the playoffs.”

FIRST NIGHT

There was a lot of rust out there early on, but the squads got limbered up as the night progressed, Memorial, a quick and aggressive perennial contender, gaining the upper hand in the first stretches with better touches. Meanwhile North, with former stars Cesar Rodriguez and Chino Zavala watching from the side, gradually got the hang of the action.

After two good Wolverine chances, senior Virgil Pena, one of the most experienced kids in the Valley, forced a turnover and found Jordan Quiroz. The lanky junior was to notch a pair of goals on the night, but this one he popped in for a goal catch at 27:00.

Serna says that the defense should be the best group out there in 2009 for North, and that unit may include the once-and-future star, Emannuel Oliva, back with the team after an interlude at Econ. He was very sharp in midfield for the Coogs in the first half, and has grown a few inches, with the same educated feet and toughness belying his lean frame.

With Rivera in the back plus Joe Mar Vazquez and Jose Morales in the corners, North will be hard to dent this year.

“We have a lot of depth at that position, too,” Serna noted. “There are six or seven guys who can play good defense.”

One of them is Efren Mar, the former goalkeeper who has moved onto the pitch, yielding the crease to the combination of Irvin Gallegos and Alan Smith. Smith played well most of the way before the late Memorial barrage.

An intriguing mids option this season is skinny senior Chuy Cantu, who has fine ball skills and seems to be adept at slipping in to knock the ball away in defense. He did just that late in the half, slapping one to Quiroz on the turnover; Quiroz ranged into the right corner before sailing a bender that confounded the Wolve keeper for the first score at 13:39.

With the status of promising Mexican Cesar Barajas up for grabs, Quiroz is going to get a shot up front alongside De la Paz, and he has improved since his sophomore season.

The darting Mar got a solid look at 11 minutes of the first, and he was quick and strong in his playing time. Quiroz was close with another shot and Cantu made a series of solid plays to lead the Coogs into the break with the one-nil advantage.

“He’s gotten a lot better since he started,” Serna said of the spindly Cantu. “A lot of these guys, we all have played together for a long time, and I expect them to really come on by the time district is here.”

In the second half, North was in charge from the start, as Pena punched deep to Quiroz, who controlled one-on-two for a decent try on goal, showing that his previous weakness, the first touch and control, may be a strength this year.

Pena worked another passing try to Quiroz at 34:10, which necessitated a desperation punchout by the keeper. The Wolverines produced a few shots, but the North defense was equal to the task.

Then Mar, who can really scoot when he gets the ball, forced down the right side, with Quiroz picking up the loose ball and slotting it home after running through the keeper and regaining possession for an easy unblocked put-in at 31:06.

It got even better a few minutes later, as Arturo Gonzalez, brother of last year’s defenseman Jorge Gonzalez (and with the same telltale moustache) found the net off an assist from Cantu, who played a very fine match.

Mar missed out front and then Oliva forced to no avail, and with 15 minutes left, it looked like a Coog victory. But Memorial exploded for three straight hits against a mix of first- and second-team defenders to come from nowhere. The Wolves tallied at 15:55, 13:27 and finally 10:16, and a pair of header tries from Pena came up empty late.

Still, despite the distressing result, North did well with a makeshift lineup, and will continue the scrimmage season in anticipation of the city tournament next weekend, where it hopes to advance farther than last year, when the run ended in the semifinals.

ECISD CATS

TOURNAMENT

FRIDAY, JAN. 9

At EHS

EHS vs. St. Joe, noon

EHS vs. Laredo United, 2:30

EHS vs. Pharr North, 5

At Econ

Econ vs. Laredo Alexander, noon

Econ vs. RGC, 2:30

Econ vs. Harlingen South, 5

At North

North vs. Weslaco East, noon

North vs. Laredo United South, 2:30

North vs. Gregory-Portland, 5

SATURDAY, JAN. 10

Semifinals

9/10:30 a.m. at Cats Stadium

Third-place game

12:30 at Cats

Championship game

3 p.m. at Cats