By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It wasn’t exactly the season opener that the Kearny High School football team was looking for, as the Kards dropped a tough 42-6 decision to Columbia last Friday night.
Third-year head coach Pete Llaneza feels that the Kardinals made major strides a year ago, when the Kardinals posted a 3-7 record.
“Looking back, there were a lot of positives last year,” Llaneza said. “We competed better than we did before. Of course, it’s always an uphill battle. We still have a big gap to close, but I think we’ve closed the gap considerably over the two-anda- half years I’ve been here. The kids are athletically committed to the program. We’ve grown in numbers. So I think we’re going in the right direction. Each year, we’re getting 10-to-15 kids with football experience coming into the program.”
Llaneza was happy with the addition of some talented freshmen.
“We have some freshmen who are ahead of our sophomores and juniors,” Llaneza said. “We have a lot of really good kids. They’re working hard and doing what we ask them to do.”
Among the most experienced Kardinals is senior quarterback Eric Greenlee (5-8, 145). Greenlee is in his third year as the Kards’ signal caller.
“That experience definitely helps,” Llaneza said. “He’s an even tempered guy who has been through the wars. He’s been running our offense for three years now, so he knows what he’s doing and what we’re trying to do. He has a good, live arm and he’s tough to rattle. He’s just so even keeled.”
Junior running back Gabriel Xavier (5-11, 180) has also returned. Xavier had some big performances for the Kards a year ago.
“He’s definitely raised the bar during the offseason,” Llaneza said. “He just enjoys playing football and it shows. Mentally, he’s what we’re looking for.”
Junior T.J. Witt (5-10, 190) is the Kards’ starter at fullback.
“T.J. had a great camp and has been working hard,” Llaneza said. “He’s stepped up and has been doing a good job of running the ball. He’s a good football player, a tough, hard-nosed guy.”
The halfbacks are senior Nick Santos (5-8, 160) and junior Jax Angulo (5-5, 140).
“I expect a lot out of Jax,” Llaneza said. “Nick didn’t play football last year, but he had a good summer and he will contribute.”
The Kardinals have four players at wide receiver, namely seniors Miguel Roman (5-9, 160) and Owen Nee (5-10, 170) and juniors Sonny Nash (5-9, 155) and Robert Silva (5-8, 145). Nee owns an interesting story. “
He was a center and tackle last year, but he asked us to take a look at him at split end,” Llaneza said. “He proved he could catch passes, so we are giving him a shot there.”
The Kardinals’ starting offensive line has some size and experience. Senior tackle Winder Pasache (5-8, 205) and senior guards Kyle Griffin (6-3, 265) and Nicholas Bellotti (6-0, 215) are all returning starters. Senior Ryan Michaels (6-0, 215), a standout catcher during the baseball season, is the Kardinals’ starting center, while junior Byron Quevedo (5-10, 205) is the other starter at tackle.
The Kards will use Bellotti and Michaels at defensive end, with Griffin at nose guard. Senior Renato Matta (6-1, 250) will also get considerable playing time at the nose.
Xavier returns to his outside linebacker slot, joined by Nash and junior Jorge Fernandez (5-8, 165). The inside linebackers are Witt, who is a returning starter and was the team’s second leading tackler last year, and Nee, with Pasache and Quevedo getting time at linebacker.
Junior Tim Soto (5-10, 155), who also serves as the team’s backup quarterback, is a cornerback, along with Greenlee and Angulo.
Roman is the team’s safety, where he roams sideline to sideline.
“He does a great job there,” Llaneza said. “Coming into camp, we didn’t think he’d be our free safety, but he made a ton of tackles in our scrimmages. He’s a good guy to support the run.”
The Kardinals have a tough go in the weeks to come, facing Bayonne and the state’s No. 3-ranked team, St. Peter’s Prep, in successive weeks. “
At least both of those games are at home on Friday nights,” Llaneza said. “We definitely have our work cut out for us. But as long as we keep working hard and competing, we’ll be fine. I’m very optimistic. We’re going to play all the teams on our schedule with the idea of working hard and competing. We are getting better each day.”