SAN BENITO – When it got sticky here Tuesday night, the Cougars never flinched, hanging in there against a legendary soccer program with a combination of mental toughness and unwillingness to give in. Oh, and there was overall fitness involved as well, as North upended Brownsville Rivera, 2-1 in penalty kicks, advancing to the regional tournament for the first time in school annals.
It was a sublime, classic game with North taking a goal early, and then digging in to defend against the touch-fine, speedy Raider outfit. State champs two years ago, the Raiders imagined that their version of the Beautiful Game – long a staple in Soccer Town, RGV – was going to be enough to take down the upstarts from Hidalgo County.
When they punched across an amazing equalizer inside of the last four minutes, the Raiders must have thought alright, we got em, especially because at this stage the Coogs were a man down after a red card at the 12-minute mark.
But Elias Moran’s hardy bunch has been trained by a sports psychologist, the estimable Eduardo Arambula, and thus knew how to adjust, mentally. They have been conditioned by the hard taskmaster Moran, and so were in shape for the overtimes and beyond. A little luck at the close of regulation, as Rivera inadvertently evened the player count by getting red-carded, was all that this resilient underdog needed.
The teams were tied 1-1 after 20 minutes of overtime, as Frank Cantu led a massive defensive effort that had continually parried every swift Rivera foray. Twin towers Azael de Leon and Esteban Lopez were also men among men Tuesday, and the Coogs played defensive soccer with proper measures of patience, skill, and desperation.
The PKs went six-deep, and after energetic keeper Carlos Rodriguez knocked away his second Raider shot of the session, plucky little Jeremy Garcia became the hero with a slotting of his try, sending the Coogs on to San Antonio.
Moran now took his club on the road for the Sweet 16 as North became only the second side in town history to make it that far, following the EHS juggernaut of 2003. After having beaten Harlingen South and Laredo LBJ, the Coogs faced off with a perennial power and lived to tell about it.
The night was glorious, marking mastery of a Brownsville power for the first time. Everyone who was there will always remember the regional quarters; it was that kind of quintessential evening.
Before a nice crowd of rooters who made the jaunt to Bobby Morrow Stadium, North struck with a dagger right off the bat as Carlos “Gallo” Rodriguez, one of the inspirational leaders of a special unit full of them, located a high bouncing ball and slammed it past a defender and the keeper at 36:23.
Despite the festive strains of a mariachi band spurring the Coogs on from the stands, they would not see the ball that much from there, as Rivera, with its patented pass-backs and set-ups from the defending third, went to work. Left back Cantu was at the top of his craft all night: clearing, saving, and generally playing top-flight futbol. The Raiders had a number of tries in the first half but North held; a late-half rush by the determined favorite went for naught as hardy Carlos Sandoval bent back time and again to harass the patient but oncoming Raiders.
Getting to the half with the lead was huge.
“We have a team that never gives up, they have been working with Arambula and he has taught them to concentrate, and to keep their spirits up,” said Moran, a North ex on the pitch who has been making history this year with his side. “We knew Rivera was fast and touched well, we just had to hang in there. Scoring first, I think that let us know that we could win.”
They did that with a total team effort, as de Leon and Lopez battled the crafty Raiders, Cantu continuing to enjoy his finest game ever at a most crucial juncture of the season. The excitable Rodriguez in goal was able to work his magic over and over, though he nearly exited for the duration during a second-half near-brawl, surviving to save the day after receiving just a yellow.
When it came to PKs, Rodriguez blocked the first Rivera try and North held the lead for part of the session. Rivera caught up and went ahead 3-2 until Cantu and de Leon hammered winners by the Rivera minder. De Leon’s was particularly vital, leveling things at 4-4. Then when the North keeper denied a Rivera shooter at stage six, Garcia stepped in and slipped a beauty past the minder for the dramatic win.
“I waited till the end to commit, got the saves, I think I made them nervous by jumping around,” said Rodriguez, who is not a huge physical presence out there but makes up for it with quickness, grit, and fire. “I picked us up when we needed it, but it was all for my team, not myself!”
BEST ON THE PITCH, NORTH’S HISTORIC RUN CONCLUDES
It will be a season long recalled at North, after the boys’ soccer program advanced to the regional tournament and recorded a monumental upset of state-ranked San Antonio Clark before expiring. The Cougars of Coach Elias Moran ran aground a game away from the state Final 4, losing a narrow decision to Valley mate Juarez-Lincoln, 1-0 in overtime Saturday afternoon.
With the victory at regionals, North can lay claim to being the most successful soccer side in city annals, along with the EHS club of 14 years ago, that also made it to the Sweet 16. The Coogs beat Harlingen South, Laredo LBJ, and Brownsville Rivera to earn their way to SA, where they knocked off Clark before losing to Lincoln, Moran’s former school.