BY TJ GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

McALLEN — Approaching the 2019 soccer season, Ava Alaniz was flying high.

The McAllen High midfielder was coming off a 2018 campaign in which her late goal during the regional final beat powerhouse Austin Lake Travis and vaulted the Bulldogs into the UIL state tournament — the first Valley girls soccer team to ever make it that far.

A few months later, the 5-foot-7 Alaniz also realized another dream when she verbally committed to play soccer Division I University of Houston.

Then, just before the 2019 season started, she crash-landed. The then-junior severely strained a tendon in the middle of her kicking foot. For an athlete who had never been hurt before, coping with the injury and missing two months of the season was a frustrating tribulation — even after she got back on the pitch.

“I remember during halftime of a game against Mission High, I had a total breakdown,” said Alaniz, who missed 20 games and was regulated to cheerleading from McHi’s side. “I felt like I was out of tune with my body and how to move on the soccer field, something that had before been so natural to me.

“I cried tears of frustration, but then decided that wasn’t going to make anything better.”

And that resolute, matter-of-fact approach to the game is a large part of what has defined Alaniz’s high school career. This season, her story, her comeback and her superior play on the field, even in a shortened season for her, led her to be named The Monitor’s All-Area Co-Soccer Player of The Year.

Although the Bulldogs were a formidable team without her at 15-2-3, McHi missed an Alaniz that not only was a pugnacious performer, but a team leader on and off the pitch.

Alaniz entered the game after intermission during her first game back against McAllen Rowe on Feb. 22. About 10 minutes in, she beat a defender and served up a perfect assist to Sophia Soto, who immediately found the net in the Bulldogs’ 3-0 victory.

“That really motivated me because I had hardly been walking for a week when it happened,” Alaniz said.

She’s known as much for her tenacity and toughness as she is for her technical talents. Alaniz can score, but she prides herself on controlling the midfield and getting the ball into her forwards.

Longtime friend and teammate Westyn Henderson, last year’s Player of the Year by The Monitor, said Alaniz has pushed her on the field, and her game elevates all the players around her.

“One of Ava’s biggest strengths is her ability to create scoring opportunities as she attacks players and works her best in situations where she is under pressure,” Henderson said.

Expectations for McHi were high in 2019 following 2018’s state semifinal appearance. The Bulldogs fell short, however, becoming the hunted, and every program in the RGV and up north gave them their best and used them as a measuring stick.

Even with Alaniz, McHi had its 50-game district winning streak snapped by an 11-1 La Joya Juarez-Lincoln team whose only loss was to McHi earlier in the season. Then, after they snuck past Brownsville Hanna in the second around of the playoffs, the Bulldogs were beaten by Harlingen South 1-0 in the third round.

“I do think that a lot of moving parts have to work perfectly in order to create the type of historic run we had in 2018,” said Alaniz, whose team fell short of reaching state this year. “I didn’t realize it until it was over, and I think my teammates would say the same. A lot of things have to go right for a team, off and on the field, to go far in the playoffs. It isn’t just a matter of pure talent.”

Grounded by her parents and friends, Alaniz is looking to next spring. She said the Bulldogs will focus on themselves and not worry about what other teams are doing. They want to compete, stay healthy and get back to state.

“I want to compete with what we did last season (in 2018),” Alaniz said. “I expect improvement and a deeper playoff run. As for myself, I hope to do as much as I can individually to ultimately contribute to the overall success of my team in whatever form that may be.”