Danny Valdez is right up there with the all-time greats, in terms of soccer success but also when it comes to classic poor-mouthing. Now a poor-mouther is someone who always slyly downplays his team’s chances to win, mainly to keep the kids from getting too cocky and partly out of good old-fashioned superstition. Famed Raymondville coach football Alex Leal – he of the 200-plus career victories – was the unrivaled master at the trick; he’d tell you, gosh, he just hoped the Bearkats would be able to get the bus to make it to the game on time … and then he’d beat your butt, 50-0.
Valdez was at his vintage best as the rain started to stream down Wednesday night, saying that he hoped his Lady Cougars were ready to scrap, because the upcoming match against Weslaco was going to be a nail-biter. All North needed to do was win and its second district title in a row would be reality.
And he was right. Again. It was tough. So tough that it came down to the last four minutes at Richard R. Flores Stadium. That’s when feisty freshman Dayanara Hernandez created something out of nothing, drawing a foul in the box and leading to the Moment of Truth. Up stepped strapping senior Daniela Ortiz and she boomed in the penalty to send North to the crown once again, 2-1.
“I knew it, I knew it,” Valdez cackled after the thrilling victory, which transpired with a handful of Vela people in the stands to see if they could ease past North for the crown on the final day of the campaign. “Weslaco is a good team, man, and it figured to be a struggle. I knew we could win if we took it seriously and gave our best. Luckily, we made it happen when we had to do it.”
So the Lady Coogs are the champs again, and now enter the soccer playoffs for the 17th time in 22 seasons. Valdez has piloted the program in every game it has ever played and thus has seen it all: good, bad, indifferent.
He chalked up the success of his latest edition to the usual factors: hard work, talent, and perseverance. But he also noted something that has helped him become one of the most highly successful coaches in the business.
“I don’t know, I guess I have always tried to treat all the girls like they were my daughters,” he explained before the game, as raindrops splattered his navy blue jacket and cap, threatening to become part of the ship captain’s goatee he has cultivated in recent moons.
“Sure I get after them, they know we will always tell them to get with it when they are not doing what they are supposed to. But I hope they also know that we really care about them, as people, and sometimes when we, well, me, when I yell at them I am trying to help them. Maybe it makes us a more cohesive group out there, I don’t know. But that’s what I have been trying to do here for so many years.”
That sort of tough-love tack has paid him back in five district titles, and in infinitely more important ways. A few years ago, one of his ex players, Edna Gonzalez, donated a kidney to Valdez’ daughter. Saved her life, basically.
“I told my wife, wow, I think I get it,” he recalled with a wistful glance out at the pitch, where his girls were warming up in the rain. “God has a plan for us, and maybe being a coach, that’s what it’s all about. It really made think about what I was doing, how lucky I have been. If Edna thought enough of me, my family, to do that, man, I guess what I have been doing is making a difference. She didn’t have to do that.”
The cohesion was at the fore of the clincher as Weslaco, an underrated side with tremendous size and strength, brought the fight to the home side, scoring early. North eventually equalized by the interval and really tilted the field after the break, breaking through the Pantherette high press and sending tantalizing thru balls into the box on multiple occasions. But with five minutes left, it was still tied, and the Lady Coogs faced the possibility of going to penalties; a loss in the extra session would have vaulted Vela into a co-title.
Just when it looked dire, North sprinted to the tape, Ortiz slamming the winner into the twines to cap another district championship. Tough, but done.
Just like the learned sage had predicted.