Talent has not been an issue this season for North, but teamwork has. Before a recent hot streak catapulted the Coogs back into the 31-5A soccer race, there had been a consistent failure to get everyone on the same page. Actually, it had been like pulling teeth for Coach Joe Gaspar to even get all his superstars to the game on the same night, due to other commitments and injuries.
But now, it’s all coming together for the refocused Coogs, and Tuesday they blasted first-place EHS out of the water 3-1, the team’s 1-5 start now seeming like a bad and distant memory. The Bobcats are now 8-2 (22 points) with North at 5-5 (16, good for fourth place just ahead of Econ).
Withstanding a 1-0 deficit after Edinburg started very well, North dominated the last 60 minutes of the night, as All-Valley junior Cesar Barajas returned to the team after a two-week hiatus and the rest of the kids produced credible evenings.
North has now won four in a row. Moving into third place after that miserable start, and few observers doubt that this is the league’s most dangerous group heading into the league home stretch.
“This is how we should have been playing all year long,” said Gaspar after his Coogs outpassed and outhustled the Bobcats big time. “It has been frustrating because I always knew we were way better than we were showing.”
At the start, EHS, a consistent unit all season, was quicker on the enemy field, working excellent passing combinations and pressing the North defense. Luis Hinojosa’s brilliant side-foot pass found freshman sensation Kristov Martinez in stride and resulted in an early goal at 36:01. The advance had started with a Javi Chavez defend-and-clear, as the ‘Cats were ready to play and North was not.
“Some of our guys got here 10 minutes before the game,” Gaspar complained. “And we just weren’t prepared. Sometimes I wonder if these guys really know what it takes to be winners. I hope they are figuring it out.”
EHS’s Sergio Romo then battled to two shot attempts, the first coming one-on-one against North keeper Angel Delgado, who was equal to the task at 28 minutes with a diving save. This was a big play because Edinburg was rolling and a 2-goal lead might have been the end for North.
North began to find the groove after that, with Barajas entering the game with 11 minutes left. A minute later, Sergio “Chabelo” Garcia equalized with a header off a superb left-footed looper corner kick by Alex Gutierrez, and it took a series of great defensive moments from Luis Ramirez of EHS to stave off further damage.
The Bobcats have built a first-place resume with speed, attacking mids, and steady play in back. But a goalie-drop to begin the second half led to a gimme goal for the Coogs. Newcomer Steve Flores, who was real sharp for North Tuesday, hit a long shot that Jose Riza of EHS bobbled. Barajas was racing into the box and he snared the loose ball, sending it home with a deft left cross up high at 36:08.
With the North defenders holding their ground and Barajas beginning to dominate in the middle, EHS was stymied in the half. Meanwhile, the shifty Gutierrez finished the scoring at 12:32, with another Coog goal by Barajas being waved off.
In all, it was the sort of team effort the Coogs have been seeking, and as stated, resulted in the program’s fourth victory in a row. The Bobcats forced early and were clearly superior until hitting the skids midway through the first half. After that, North felt its oats and handed the visitor a whipping, fair and square.
NOTES: Former North girls’ superstar Sammie Gutierrez was on hand to watch brother Alex. She is down from Austin for Spring Break and is in the midst of her soccer season at St. Stephens. All-Valley as a freshman before moving away, Gutierrez says she is considering TCU and Valparaiso in Indiana, with several other schools in the running for her considerable midfield gifts.
EHS 1, ECON 0 (SO)
Friday the Bobcats rallied for a win to keep pace in the race, though Econ outplayed them most of the way. When defender Chavez surged left and sent the shootout game-winner back right past the keeper, EHS (9-2, 25 points) had survived a stern test from the speedy and improving young Jag unit, which dropped to 5-6 (15 points) with the loss.
Rogelio Ramirez and Brandon Bernabel scored for Econ in the shootout portion, with Martinez and Jacob Zuniga countering for the ‘Cats. Neither team connected on two tries in sudden death until Chavez made his shot. Jag Lupe Vidal had been turned away by EHS’s Risa seconds earlier, leading to the night-ending score.
The Jags looked faster and passed better throughout regulation but could not dent the defense of Risa and defender Luis Sanchez. Star sophomore Angel Duran was relatively quiet Friday, while teammates Jose “Chava” Cabrera, Angel Rivera, and Marcos Perales continually pressured the attack. On defense, newcomer Brandon Alejo had a super game, showing nice touch and quick feet.
Coach Sam Gonzalez says his inexperienced unit is coming around after a slow start, and its performance indicated this is true.
“We have made some changes in personnel and formation, and it looks like we are starting to get there,” said Gonzalez, whose program has won six league titles in a row. “We have about 80 percent sophomores out there but they are mentally believing in themselves now. We have a shot at the playoffs, but this season has been a struggle all the way.”
EHS played without underrated playmaker Luis Hinojosa and his absence was felt. The ‘Cats could not sustain any meaningful combo plays Friday, and were somewhat sluggish after the draining loss to North. But the first-place club made it happen in the shootout mode, and with three games remaining are still looking good for a league title.