BY HENRY MILLER
PROGRESO — Even those who don’t follow soccer quickly realize that the Progreso Red Ants look to score at every opportunity.
When the opposing team plays with eight defenders, coach Margarito Jimenez Jr.’s strategy is to attack. When the opposing team is looking to counterstrike, his game plan is to attack.
And when the Red Ants are facing a team with two players who have combined for more than 100 goals this season, Jimenez’s plan is to attack, at least until Progreso scores a goal. Javier Leonor has registered 66 goals for the top-seeded Palestine Panthers (34-0), while teammate Riley Harper has scored 38 goals. Progreso and Palestine meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Georgetown in the Class 4A state semifinals.
“We are going for one goal,” Jimenez told his squad prior to practice Monday morning. The game is a rematch of the 2016 state championship match, which Palestine won 1-0 in penalty kicks. “We are going for one goal, and then we are not going to let them score. I’ve told you before: You are the best defense in the state. We are going to prove it.”
While the Red Ants are known for a prolific offense — one that scored 16 goals in a game earlier this year and has outscored opponents 14-1 in the playoffs — Jimenez stresses that his defense is a wall. As soon as the Red Ants broke up their informal meeting Monday, the three-time Class 4A Region IV champions started working on defense, specifically defending the long ball — a common counterstrike strategy against a high-octane offense.
“We practice defense a lot,” Jimenez said. “We were embarrassed by Valley View — of course they are a great team — but we lost to them 5-0 and then made some changes defensively that have made a big difference. They hurt our feelings.”
Valley View is the top seed in the Class 5A state Final Four and is 31-0 overall.
“When we start the season, we are looking to see where everyone can play,” Jimenez said. “Not many want to play defense, but we have four with Anthony Vasquez, Oscar Munoz, Hugo Guajardo and Edgar Melendez — those four are a wall along with our goalie Arturo Gallegos, and they refuse to allow goals into our net.”
Senior defender and co-captain Vasquez remembers the game against Valley View and the changes that immediately followed.
“They had the ball it seemed like 100 percent,” said Vasquez, who plays defense mainly because that’s what he said he learned from his dad, who played growing up in Michoacán, Mexico. “Playing defense is a big responsibility, especially when the game is tied.”
Vasquez was on the field when an errant Progreso throw-in was picked off by a Taylor player and turned into a goal during the first minute of their Class 4A regional semifinal. After the Red Ants secured a comeback win, they knew they had another test in the regional final against Liberty Hill and scoring weapon Jaron Frye.
This time, the Red Ants will have two scoring phenoms to contend with.
“We know about them, but we also knew about No. 10 (Frye) from Liberty Hill,” Vasquez said. “But he didn’t do anything.”
That was in part because the Red Ants double-teamed the Panthers star and kept fresh bodies him. At one point, Jimenez called on Vasquez’s younger brother Michael to be part of the team that was marking Frye.
“My mom has a picture of my brother in front, then No. 10, then me,” the elder Vasquez said. “They brought him (Michael) in because he’s rough, and he didn’t let him get away.”
Frye found one opportunity to get away, but the younger Vasquez grabbed onto Frye’s arm and wouldn’t let go. The result was a yellow card for Vasquez.
“If we have to trade a yellow card for a goal, we’ll do it every time,” Jimenez said. “I’ll take that anytime.”
Anthony Vasquez remembers playing Palestine two years ago. A sophomore at the time, he didn’t play much. But he said Progreso was the better team, controlling most of the match. However, the plan to go to penalty kicks worked for Palestine.
Jimenez said he isn’t sure what Palestine plans to do this year, but his team will be ready for a wide-open affair or to play against a team that sits back and relies on defense.
No matter what style Palestine implements, Jimenez has a game plan set.
“Our plan is to attack,” he said. “I know they have more weapons this year than when we met them before, but our plan is to attack and try to keep them scoreless. Let’s put one on them and see if we can handle it.
“We’ll see what we’ll do (about Palestine’s two primary scorers) when we get there. I know this: If we leave them alone, they will hurt us.”