GEORGETOWN — The McAllen High Bulldogs listed a strong start as one of the keys entering their Class 6A state semifinal match against Houston Memorial.
But the Memorial Mustangs were the ones who scored the early goal, which stood as the winner in the 2-0 final Friday morning at Birkelbach Field.
The opening tally came just 38 seconds into the match, on a rising shot from Grace Yochum over the reach of McHi keeper Lexi Gonzalez.
“I think (if) we don’t give up that goal, that’s a whole different ballgame,” Bulldogs coach Pat Arney said. “I think it did solidify us. I think we could have crumbled and given up eight or nine goals, and I think that’s what people thought we were going to do. All credit to the girls. They dug deep. They went hard.”
McAllen fielded an extremely young squad loaded with underclassmen who are set to return next season. The seniors on the team said they were happy to be a part of the group, which became the first Valley girls team in history to advance to the state tournament.
“I had a very good year with my team,” senior defender Jackie Lemus said. “The dedication and ambition to win and get further than last year was great. The unity was the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Lemus, Victoria Sola, Serena Cervantes, Paola Perez and Priscilla Cantualla will graduate this year.
“That quick goal was mentally really challenging for us, but I think after that, our defense did an amazing job,” Westyn Henderson, one of McHi’s stars at last weekend’s regional tournament, said. “I have to give credit to the defense and Lexi for playing their hearts out.”
Hannah Kelly, Emily Gurwitz, Lemus and Sola were again solid defensively, just as they were on the Bulldogs path to the state tournament.
After the initial strike, the Mustangs didn’t muster many opportunities on net. Instead, they were content to maintain possession and force McAllen to play long passes.
“The intensity they brought was very high. They challenged every ball,” Henderson said. “They went in hard. They were bigger than us, but I think we hung in.”
Sophia Soto was the primary target for McHi’s attack, and she often used her speed to beat the first defender, but Memorial was typically quick to recover and pressure the ball away.
The Bulldogs’ best opportunity came in the 21st minute, when a centering cross reached the head of Mireya Ramirez. The 5-foot sophomore headed the ball just high of the crossbar, and the chance ended on top of the net.
After that play, threats were few and far between for McHi.
“You’ve got to tell the girls, ‘In these big games, you only get two or three chances, maybe, a game. So you gotta put those away,’” Arney said. “We were hopeful, only being down 1-0 with the wind in the second half. Bounces didn’t go our way. We certainly gave it everything we had.”
Memorial was strong on the ball in the second half, rarely surrendering possession and not giving McHi a clean look at the net.
During the final five minutes of the match, Memorial doubled its lead with a shot by Alina Khan, sealing the win and advancing the Mustangs to their first state championship match. Friday’s victory marked their 21st shutout of the season.
After the game, Arney caught up with former players from his 22-year tenure at McAllen High. He met with players from his first team, his first regional qualifying team and his 2007 group that advanced to the regional finals — previously the deepest run by a Bulldogs squad.
“This is the top. This is Mount Everest,” Arney said. “This is where everybody wants to be. The Valley soccer has come so far. I’m so proud of the girls to leave this legacy. There are some teams that aren’t that far behind us. If we can push each other and get better… man who knows what can happen. Take us for granted at your peril.”
Lemus had bittersweet feelings about coming up short on Friday, but she was glad to leave a mark on history.
“We’re the first team that came this far, but we didn’t want this,” Lemus said. “We wanted state. I hope other teams want to break this record, and I hope McHI once in my lifetime wins state.”