Defense key for Red Raiders' run

Robert E. Lee's defense is a big reason why the Red Raiders are still in the playoffs. Pictured (from left) are Eddie Esparza, Mikey Wilkins, goalie Austin Martel, Alexis Chavez and George Martinez. (Sarah A. Miller | Tyler Morning Telegraph)

ROUND ROCK — Robert E. Lee was caught in a counterattack and looked to be in trouble.

Clinging to a 3-2 lead over Longview with three minutes remaining, Lee coach Marty Germany could only watch as a Lobos player raced toward the goal with teammates on either side.

Then Lee senior Eddie Esparza seemingly appeared out of nowhere and tackled the ball away to help secure the Red Raiders’ regional quarterfinal win.

Germany was not surprised. In fact, he’s learned to expect it from his defense.

Esparza and junior George Martinez man the outsides with seniors Mikey Wilkins and Alexis Chavez in the middle. If an opponent makes it through that, senior goalkeeper Austin Martel is waiting.

“They do a good job reading passes and picking them off before they get up to the forwards,” Germany said. “With Alexis and Mikey being a little more technically gifted and Eddie and George dig in and do the dirty work, so it’s a nice balance between the four of them.”

The Red Raiders (15-6-5) face Austin Westlake (23-1-1) at 6 p.m. Friday in the second of two Class 5A Region II semifinals at the Kelley Reeves Athletic Complex. The winner will face either Dallas Jesuit or The Woodlands in the regional final at 1 p.m. Saturday.

A big reason REL is still playing is its back four and their ability to frustrate opposing offenses. Chavez admits REL has given up some goals in the playoffs, but when it matters most, the Red Raiders have been able to close up shop.

“We’ve grown stronger with each game,” said Chavez, who added REL’s composure is a big part of its growth. “Sometimes defenders like to just kick the ball up the field, but what I want to do is control the ball so we can get possession and (pass) it to my teammates.”

REL’s possession game was on full display a week ago against Richardson Berkner. The Red Raiders were able to cope and frustrate the nationally ranked Rams by keeping the ball for long stretches.

For Esparza and Martinez, the most difficult thing is keeping their shape and not being sucked up into the attack where they can be caught on a counter.

“Last year I played midfield, so the transition was a little hard,” Esparza said. “In the playoffs we’ve been man marking (with George and me interchangeable) and finding their two best forwards. It’s all chemistry.”

In their bi-district win over A&M Consolidated, a 3-0 shutout, the Red Raiders limited the Tigers attacks to long-range efforts. Wilkins controlled the middle of the box and Consolidated never found a way through.

It is a position Wilkins relishes and, as the quarterback of the back four, he keeps REL’s defense on the same page.

“I am pretty much the eyes on the field; telling everyone where they need to step to and controlling everybody,” said Wilkins, who also has two goals in the postseason to give him eight for the year.

“George plays club soccer with me, so we already have a good bond and I’ve played soccer with Alexis for a while so we’ve (developed a good chemistry). My right back, Eddie Esparza, listens well and he knows when to step up (into the attack) and when to drop.”

The Red Raiders found a way past Consolidated, Berkner and Longview and will now have to contend with a Westlake team that has scored 80 goals. The Chaparrals have outscored their opponents in the postseason 6-0.

“We just believe that we can (beat this team),” Martinez said. “You can’t just give up when you feel tired. You have to (push through) and that is what we want to do.”

By The Numbers

Austin Westlake (23-1-1)

Playoffs: d. Round Rock 3-0 (bi-district), Humble Kingwood 2-0 (area), Klein 1-0 (regional quarterfinals).

Goals Scored: 80

Goals Allowed: 22

State Appearances: 2 (1983 lost 2-0 to Richardson Pearce in first-ever final); (2010 lost 4-0 to Dallas Jesuit in semifinals).

Robert E. Lee (15-6-5)

Playoffs: d. A&M Consolidated 3-0 (bi-district), Richardson Berkner 3-2 (area), Longview 3-2 (regional quarterfinals).

Goal Scored: 56

Goals Allowed: 28

State Appearances: 2 (1990 lost 3-0 to Grapevine in Final); (1994 lost 1-0 to New Braunfels in Final).

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