MISSION — La Joya Juarez-Lincoln had more chances, more speed and the more dynamic offense when it went head-to-head with Harlingen High in the area round of the Class 6A playoffs Tuesday night at Richard Thompson Stadium.
The Cardinals nearly neutralized all of those advantages, however, with a tight defensive structure that allowed them to take a lead in the second half. La Joya Juarez-Lincoln was undeterred and exploded for three-second half goals to prevail 4-2.
Melanie Olivarez scored to tie the game at 2, and Pricilia Hernandez buried the go-ahead goal.
Huskies coach Rick Garza said his team had no panic even after Harlingen High took its first lead 5 minutes into the second half.
“They know what they have. More than anything, they know the attributes that each one of them carries,” Garza said. “We’ve been in this type of situation before where we’ve gone up, we’ve gone back down and we were a resilient team where we were able to bounce back from that.”
Prior to the game’s first goal, Harlingen High’s defense was deploying an offsides trap to perfection.
On numerous occasions, La Joya Juarez-Lincoln had multiple players behind the last defender. Huskies defenders and midfielders had to play a delicate waiting game to allow their attack to get back into position.
The side referee’s checkered flag stopped multiple chances, including a play that would have sent the quick Olivarez in alone.
Olivarez, who factored in once the team beat the trap, said it took some time before her team could attack at will.
“We made some adjustments,” she said. “As soon as they were screaming, ‘Go down,’ we would get back as fast as we could, just like them. We would retain the ball, and as soon as they would get near, we would kick it.”
Eventually, the Huskies found their moment to shine with 13:28 to play during the first half on a passing play that went from Ashley Segura to Olivarez and finally to Yulissa Ramirez, who had an empty net to finish.
Harlingen High didn’t take long to answer. One minute and 33 seconds later, the Cardinals scored their first goal on a long blast from Gillian Cespedes. La Joya Juarez-Lincoln keeper Jenny Perez got a hand on the ball, but not enough to keep the shot out.
Harlingen High, which knocked off District 31-6A champ Edinburg North in bi-district, took advantage of a mistake by a defender to score early in the second half. Monique Rodriguez had a lot of net to shoot at and booted the ball past Perez.
The situation was looking grim for La Joya Juarez-Lincoln for a quarter of an hour. Olivarez was on and off the field with an apparent foot injury, and Harlingen High continued to defend well.
Freshman Stephanie Jimenez, who showcased dribbling abilities most of the night in the midfield, was unleashed for the Huskies. She nearly took the ball from the deep midfielder all the way for a score, but shot the ball just high.
Olivarez returned to the game right on time to score. After receiving a hard pass, the junior had time to collect her footing and sprint to the goalmouth. She kicked the ball hard from in close, giving the goalie no chance and letting out a huge fist pump before celebrating with her teammates.
“(My foot) was hurting a little, but this one person told me that it was all mental,” Olivarez said. “I tried to put it aside. I tried my best. I gave my all. I was not going to let my team down, and that’s when the goal game.”
As the half continued, overtime seemed increasingly likely. Harlingen High’s defense continued to battle and earn inside positioning. Lady Cardinals freshman Carissa Escamilla was noticeable during the second half as she boxed out and kept Huskies forward from using their speed to beat her.
With less than 10 minutes to play, sophomore Pricila Hernandez took matters into her own hands. On a ball that was rolling back to the Harlingen High ‘keeper, Hernandez stuck out a foot to disrupt the normally routine play.
She got around both defender and ‘keeper to tap in the ball that sent La Joya Juarez-Lincoln to third round.
Three minutes later, a Jimenez centering pass was misplayed, and an own goal gave the Huskies cushion to end the game.
Harlingen High coach Debra Galvan said she’s seen encouraging things from her program in three years at the helm. In back-to-back years, it knocked off two Edinburg foes — Vela last season and North in 2019.
“Seeing them grow, that’s the key for any coach,” Galvan said. “You just want to see your team growing every year. Last year we made it this far. We lost to McHi. This year, again, we made it this far and we lost. We’re hoping next year is the year we can go further.”
This La Joya Juarez-Lincoln team is the first one to win a playoff game. It has a chance at making program history by extending that run when it takes on Laredo Alexander, which eliminated Edinburg High 2-1 on Tuesday night, in the regional quarterfinal round.
Olivarez is happy to help rewrite history and gain respect for the girls.
“As you see, we’re making history,” Olivarez said. “Juarez was mostly known for guys soccer. We did not like that because the girls were put aside. Ever since June we’ve been working really hard to be where we’re at right now.”