SAN ANTONIO — One late goal was all the McAllen High Bulldogs needed to punch their ticket as the first Rio Grande Valley girls soccer team in history to qualify for the state tournament. Ava Alaniz put the shot home in McHi’s 1-0 win over Austin Lake Travis in the Class 6A Region IV final on Saturday at the Blossom Athletic Center.

Alaniz lost her breath jumping around with her team when the final buzzer sounded, then again when the Bulldogs were handed the regional trophy. The goal she’ll never forget was still fresh on her mind. 

“I saw Westyn (Henderson) get the ball, and I saw a lot of open space going forward, because the defense had pushed off the line a little bit,” Alaniz said. “I figured, ‘There’s only two minutes left. There’s nothing to lose.’ I called for it, and she sent a ball. It was me versus a defender, and I had to get there before she did, and I chose to pick the bottom corner, and it went in.”

Henderson, who sent the lob pass that put Alaniz one-on-one with the goalie, said the moment was special, even knowing the Bulldogs had to defend for a few more minutes.

“Having only three minutes left in the game, that feeling was amazing,” Henderson said. “We knew we just had to play defense for it, and the win was ours.”

For nearly 78 minutes, both teams fought in an attempt to put the first ball past the opposing keeper. Strong play by defensive players on both sides made sure that wouldn’t be an easy task.

McHi sophomore goalkeeper Lexi Gonzalez made 12 saves in the victory. She ended the weekend with only one goal allowed between McHi’s wins against San Antonio Johnson in Friday’s regional semifinal and Lake Travis on Saturday.

Gonzalez said the shooting of the Cavaliers was the best she’d seen.

“I just did my best to get everything out, no matter how much it took,” Gonzalez said.

Her MVP-type performance included tipping over the crossbar three balls that were postmarked for the top shelf.

Her saves and the play of McHi’s defense shut out a Lake Travis team that put five goals past Brownsville Rivera on Friday to qualify for the regional final.

Victoria Sola, Emily Gurwitz, Rylie Flores and Zoe Flores were again praised by McHi coach Pat Arney after the game for their ability to shut down a strong opponent.

 When the winning goal went in, Gonzalez dropped to her knees in joy.

“I felt like we were going to state at the moment,” Gonzalez said. “And I was the happiest person on earth from just doing my job.”

Westyn Henderson was a difference-maker again for the Bulldogs. In Saturday’s final, she combined with teammates Alaniz and Sophia Soto to look threatening on many occasions.

The wind was a factor in the match. Sustained winds blew at 17 mph at kickoff, and gusts exceeded 20 mph.  

Though the Bulldogs didn’t score with the wind at their back in the first half, they worked their counterattack to keep the Cavaliers honest. Both teams had glimpses of offense, but the defenses stood tall.

“It was a really defensive game, so I think our mindset was once we get an opportunity to go forward, take advantage of that,” Henderson said. “I think Ava did a really good job of executing for us and getting the W for us.”

For Arney, who has been the Bulldogs coach since the program started, Saturday was a long time coming. In 2007, Arney’s group reached the regional final but was unable to leap the fifth-round hurdle. That season was the only other time McHi advanced past the fourth round.

“It’s starting to sink in,” Arney said. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks. I was starting to think about what we needed to do for overtime or maybe PKs. Just working hard, and that’s all we needed — one goal. Our defense was playing great. Lexi was playing great.”

McAllen High will play in the UIL Class 6A state semifinals on Friday. The UIL will announce the Bulldogs’ first opponent when the tournament bracket is seeded on Sunday.

“We are hoping to leave a legacy that is hard to follow. We want to go all the way,” Henderson said. “And I think we’re more motivated now than we have ever been. So we’re excited.”