McALLEN — Victoria Sola knew that either game in the regional tournament could have been her last. The senior defender woke up with fear that her high school soccer career would end soon, but her play as part of consecutive defensive gems kept her team’s run alive.
The McAllen High Bulldogs girls soccer team recorded eight clean sheets in District 30-6A play, allowing only four goals during league games. In the playoffs, McHi outscored its first three opponents 15-4, albeit without a shutout. But facing the strongest competition of the season at last weekend’s regional tournament, McAllen allowed only a single goal, including a 1-0 shutout of Austin Lake Travis in the regional final. The Cavaliers had averaged 3.5 goals per playoff game heading into the match.
The regional wins propelled McHi to the state tournament, as the Bulldogs became the first girls team in Valley soccer history to advance to the Final Four. McAllen High faces Houston Memorial in the state semifinals at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
“I think for us, what worked best (against Lake Travis) was getting a little bit physical with the girls. They didn’t really like when you contacted them,” Sola said. “We’re not usually dirty players or really physical, but you had to be a little physical with these girls, and I think that helped us. It threw them off their game. They weren’t used to that.”
Lake Travis, which had scored five goals against Brownsville Rivera in the regional semifinals, was frustrated against McHi. Standouts Trinity Clark and Haley Shaw each scored twice against the Raiders but were held scoreless against the Bulldogs.
“I know personally that I do get pretty physical when I’m playing,” Sola said. “That’s part of the game, and we’ve all learned how to do it cleanly and the right way.”
“These two past games were very intense, and the pressure was immense,” McHi’s Jackie Lemus said. “As defenders, all of us we had a goal. We were just tightening ourselves to always try hard and never give up. We cannot let a ball past us.”
Sola said the key is not overreacting against great attackers with skilled dribbling and shifty moves.
“Just being calm,” Sola said. “We had to just wait until they made a mistake. Then we could attack and stab at the ball and make sure we got it.”
Even if a ball did get by one defender, the Bulldogs swarmed as a group. And when Johnson or Lake Travis got shots at the frame of the net, sophomore goalie Lexi Gonzalez was near perfect. After the game, Gonzalez was lifted onto her team’s shoulders to a chorus of “Lexi.”
Gonzalez played all five middle school sports. But with school responsibilities plus traveling for club volleyball and soccer, the talented athlete had to narrow down the sports she could devote her time to in high school.
As a sophomore, she was named The Monitor’s All-Area Newcomer of the Year for her play for McHi’s volleyball team. Normally an outsider hitter, she made the shift to middle blocker for her high school team. Those drills and repetition paid off on the soccer field, as Gonzalez jumped to tap multiple balls over the crossbar and even punched a few centering feeds out of harm’s way.
“My job is to keep everything from going in the goal. My mentality was to stick with that,” Gonzalez said. “The jumping helps a lot, especially for blocking with volleyball. I’m able to bring that here to soccer. It was the same process. It ended up being fine.”
McHi coach Pat Arney made some adjustments over the course of the weekend. One move that paid off was shifting Zoe Flores from a more central position to the back line with her sister Rylie to add more physicality and speed against wingers.
“Whatever’s easier to help my team, because that’s just what it’s about — being a team player,” Zoe Flores said. “And to be a great soccer player, you have to know how to play every position, and I have growing up. Being able to help out my defense and my team really felt good. When I did my job and did it well, it just felt great.”
Along with defensive staples like Emily Gurwitz, McHi’s rotation on the back line proved effective, even against teams used to securing high-scoring wins.