Harrison to be force in local soccer as always
By Jim Hague
Mike Rusek begins his 11th season as the head coach of the Harrison High School boys’ soccer program and it’s probably his biggest challenge to date.
You see, the Blue Tide graduated 16 seniors from last year’s team that posted a 20-4 record and spent the season ranked among the best teams in New Jersey.
“It’s probably the biggest turnover we’ve ever had,” Rusek said. “You develop great connections with the kids and then they’re gone. It really feels like we have a new team.”
But Rusek is encouraged by the new batch of players that have infiltrated his roster.
“We’re pretty happy,” Rusek said. “We have a nice group of young players. I think when you have a new team like this, that’s when you’re really coaching. It’s exciting to us, seeing kids now get their shot and doing well. I think this group was largely overshadowed by a large group of seniors. There’s a lot of competition going on and they’re all pushing each other for playing time. It really gives me a lot of hope. It’s pretty exciting.”
One of those not competing for a position is senior goalkeeper Carlos Gutierrez, who was the team’s starter as a sophomore two years ago, then had to take a backseat to Matt Mucholski last year.
“The chemistry is great with this team already,” Gutierrez said. “It feels good playing for a team like this, because we’re all fighting for one goal, which is winning a championship. We feel we’re just as good, if not better than last year’s team. We’re learning to play together.”
Another key player is junior forward Jose Neto, who scored 12 goals last year, then suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, requiring major surgery.
“We’re all so determined,” Neto said. “We have players saying that we’re going to go further than we did last year. We’re hungry. We think we’re going to be better than last year.”
If there was a problem with the Blue Tide last year, it’s the way they finished. They lost in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals to St. Peter’s Prep, then a week later, they lost to Glen Ridge in the second round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state tournament. It left an empty feeling in Harrison.
But the Blue Tide players are determined to not have a repeat performance from a year ago.
“It gives me a lot of hope coming into this year,” said Rusek, whose team opens up against Leonia Sept. 7. “These kids are being thrown into tough situations right away and they’re handling themselves well.”
Gutierrez will do a lot of the leading from the back line.
“He’s well built,” Rusek said of Gutierrez. “He’s big and strong, has good size for a goalie. I think he’s going to do a good job.”
To capitalize on their overall team speed, Rusek has gone away from the sweeper/ stopper formation and instead will utilize a four-across formation among the defenders.
“It gives us a chance to do more things,” Rusek said. “I like their speed and athleticism.”
Senior David Marinho is a main returnee along the back line, joined by juniors Modou Sowe, Carlos Yacsabilca and Jorge Castro.
Sowe is the player to watch along the back line. He moves like a gazelle from sideline to sideline with ease. He might cover more ground than any Harrison defender ever. He’s definitely a player to watch, a top-flight performer with a lot of pure potential.
A pair of juniors, Kevin Villanueva and Exequiel Paz, headlines the midfielder corps, but the player to watch there is brilliant sophomore Leandro Gonzales, who is extremely versatile.
“He is more of a defensive midfielder, but he’s exciting to watch, because he can do so many things,” Rusek said. “The biggest challenge right now is putting all the pieces together. We really have the makings of a good team.”
Up front, the Blue Tide has some scoring punch, led by Neto, who has recovered nicely from his knee injury, along with senior forward Justin Aponte.
“I think Jose and Justin will combine to score most of our goals,” Rusek said. “They really play well together up front. I think we have a small team, but they really have some nice skill. They can hold the ball well.”
The Blue Tide will face teams like Princeton (Sept. 16) and Wallington (Oct. 5), but for now, there is no showdown with local rival Kearny on the schedule. There hasn’t been a commitment from Red Bull Arena to host another game like last year, so local fans might have to wait until the Hudson County Tournament to see the Blue Tide and Kardinals lock horns.
“We’re pleasantly surprised,” Rusek said. “We’re definitely excited about the start of the year.”
Rusek is also excited to announce a Harrison alumni soccer game that will be held Saturday, Sept. 8 at 2 p.m. at the famed Harrison Courts.
All soccer players who were born in Harrison and played for either Harrison High, St. Cecelia’s, Essex Catholic are all invited to attend.
“It doesn’t matter what school you went to, as long as you’re from Harrison,” Rusek said.
It should be a fun afternoon for the local old-timers. If you’re interested in playing or just attending, contact Rusek at (201) 618-1316. It should be a great event.
Much like it should be a great season – once again – for the Blue Tide.