By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When the boys’ high school soccer season began with practices in August, veteran Belleville High School coach Len Marino was optimistic that his team would be improved over last year. After all, that feat wouldn’t have been hard, considering that the Buccaneers won all of two games last year.
“It was a little frustrating, because we would dominate games, then find a way to lose,” said Marino, who is now in his 11th season as the Belleville head coach. “I expected us to be more competitive this year.”
Marino was right, but no one could have ever dreamed just how improved the Buccaneers would be this season.
The Bucs went undefeated through the first 10 games of the season, going 9-0-1 during that stretch, with the lone tie coming against Newark Tech.
However, the Buccaneers suffered their first setback last Saturday, falling 3-2 in double overtime to perennial state power Montclair in the quarterfinals of the Essex County Tournament.
“The games we found a way to lose last year, we are winning this year,” Marino said. “We’ve been pretty lucky. We also have five talented sophomores playing every game and we have a freshman goalie, so it’s a perfect situation. We have a very good future.”
Marino gives a lot of credit to assistant coach Michael Gaccione, who has been keeping the team in line, along with Marino’s son, Nick, who played for his father at Belleville a few years back.
“With a team like this, you would think we would be thinking about next year and being good then,” Marino said. “But we’re surprised that we’re doing well already. The young kids are really stepping it up.”
One of those youngsters is freshman goalkeeper Jason Cadena, who has been sharing time in net with senior Michael Montero. Marino is impressed with the composure Cadena has shown in his time in goal.
The Buccaneers utilize a four-across defensive backline instead of the sweeper/stopper formation.
One of the main reasons Marino uses that approach is his group of defenders is excellent with the ball and creates scoring chances on their own.’
Senior Cristian Toledo has been a mainstay on the Buccaneeers’ backline for all four years of his high school career.
“He has been the most disciplined player on the team,” Marino said. “He’s taken it upon himself to be a leader on this team.”
Another defender is sophomore Marlon Rodriguez, who ironically is one of the team’s leading scorers. Rodriguez has scored five goals, all on headers, all on set pieces.
“He has some good size and he’s a good jumper, getting to the ball,” Marino said.
The other defenders are junior Jose Vergara and sophomore Jean Malhado. Marino believes that his defensive unit has been one of the major reasons for the team’s surprising success thus far.
“The defense has been playing very well,” Marino said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games. The defense has been keeping us in games and the offense has been finding ways to score.”
Junior Carlos Castro is the Bucs’ extremely talented center midfielder. Castro made First Team All-Super Essex Conference last year as a sophomore.
“He’s definitely our best player,” Marino said of Castro, who has scored five goals this season.
Sophomore Max Correa has been the prime example of the team’s improvement. The midfielder had somewhat of a problem with keeping a level head last season, but Correa has kept his emotions in check to score six goals this season and register a team-high 11 assists.
Sophomore Matthew Gavidia is another standout in the midfield. Gavidia has scored seven goals this season.
Marino has to be pleased, considering that those three members of the midfield all return next season. The lone senior is Joel Ruiz, who is a defensive minded midfielder and does an excellent job blending with the trio of talented youngsters.
The Belleville forward line features three players, namely sophomore P.J. Gencarelli, who has scored two goals, senior Ray Prendas, who has tallied three goals and senior Kan Gelin, who has four goals and six assists. Gelin has also seen time in the midfield, showing his versatility.
“He’s very fast and very skilled,” Marino said of Gelin. “He’s much improved.”
Others seeing quality time are senior defender Victor Chiliquinga and junior midfielder/forward Kevin Mariscal.
Despite the loss to Montclair, Marino has been extremely impressed with the way his team has played thus far.
“I’m very surprised,” Marino said. “I think what has happened is that the winning has become contagious. They’ve won a few times and they’ve come together as a team because of the wins. We have a lot of tougher games coming up, but we just want to get a good seed in the state tournament. We want others to see how good we are.”
From two wins a year ago to being undefeated in the first 10, winning nine of those games, well that’s a remarkable turnaround for the Buccaneers.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” Marino said. “We’ve beaten a lot of good teams, like Bloomfield and Irvington. The 50/50 games, the ones we lost last year, we’re getting those now. It’s good to be recognized for what you’re doing. We just have to keep doing it. But I think we’re one of the more skilled teams.”
A 9-1-1 record will definitely get you noticed in boys’ soccer, no question.