By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Four years ago, when Justin Aponte was an eighth grader, he spent that fall as a ball boy for the Harrison High School soccer team, running the sidelines, making sure that the action kept moving as the Blue Tide was rolling toward yet another state championship.
“I saw that team and saw their focus,” Aponte said. “I saw how happy they were when they won a state championship. I watched that team become a family. I was so impressed with the way they came together that I wanted to have the same thing happen when I played for Harrison.”
Last year, Aponte finally got the chance to become a member of the Blue Tide soccer varsity. Aponte saw limited action and scored four goals as a key reserve.
But as Aponte began his senior year, he realized that he had to make it a special campaign.
“I remember how all the former players stepped up when they got a chance,” Aponte said. “I knew that this was my time to shine. I had to make sure that I wore the Harrison uniform with pride and give it my all. I had a lot of motivation because this was my last year.”
However, veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek didn’t know if Aponte was capable of being a leader and a top-flight scorer.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from Justin,” Rusek said. “Last year, if he didn’t do something good right away, we’d pull him out of the game and he would get down on himself. I have to admit that I was hard on him, but he stayed with it. He never quit, never gave up. But when he did get down on himself, he would struggle even more. So I really didn’t know what we were going to get from Justin this year.”
A senior forward, Aponte definitely felt like he was going to make a positive impact this season.
“But it’s more than just me,” Aponte said. “I knew that if I looked to my teammates, they could make me a better player. I had more of a responsibility this year. I knew that if I had the chance to score goals, it would make me a better player and it would make us a better team all around.”
Rusek loves Aponte’s approach and attitude.
“The kid loves to compete,” Rusek said. “He just seemed to get better when the game begins and the game is on the line. We knew we were going to go with him this year, because we had a very young team. But knowing that we were going to go with him helped his confidence from the beginning.”
Aponte has repaid his coach’s confidence, because he has been downright brilliant from the start of the season, scoring an astounding 16 goals thus far.
“I never imagined that Justin could be capable of having such a great scoring year,” Rusek said. “In the beginning of the year, we were looking to Jose Neto to do the scoring, but Justin just battles out there. He always wants to be the one who’s out there, making the plays.”
Last week, Aponte scored five goals in three games, getting two goals in wins over Hudson Catholic in the opening round of the Hudson County Tournament and over New Milford. Aponte also had a goal and two assists in a win over Queen of Peace.
For his efforts, Aponte has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Rusek seems to think that Aponte has shown such a dramatic improvement because he has matured a great deal.
“He’s matured as a man, as a soccer player and as an athlete,” Rusek said. “That maturity has been so important. You can see that he’s mature and confident. He also has a solid team of midfielders behind him, giving him good opportunities. He’s capitalizing on the chances that the other guys are giving him. The problems he had getting down on himself are long gone. He’s doing very well.”
Aponte is certainly not the selfish kind, ready to bask in the glory of being a big-time goal scorer.
“Once the game begins, I’m looking at two people, my teammates and the bench, because I’m playing the game for them,” Aponte said. “Once I get the chance, I have to put the ball in the back of the net, not just for me, but for them. We have a really young team, so I have to play for them. I’m a senior and when I leave, I want them to remember what we accomplished together. I’m doing all this for the team.”
Aponte is a three-sport athlete at Harrison who also participates in basketball in the winter and volleyball in the spring.
A lot of high school soccer players might be overjoyed with the already solid senior year that Aponte has enjoyed.
But not Aponte.
“I haven’t done enough,” Aponte said. “I need to do more. If I was doing it for myself, then it would be amazing. But I have to worry about the whole team. Right now, I might have 16 goals, but it’s not enough. We need more. We have a lot of work to do. It’s been a nice ride so far, but it’s not enough, because it’s a long season. I’ve been waiting for this chance my whole life. I want to be like the others who got a state championship when they were seniors.”
Rusek applauds Aponte’s dedication.
“We need to have a guy who wants to step up and be the one who gets the ball,” Rusek said. “If he wants to be the one in the big-time situations and responds, then that’s great. With the drive he has, it’s a blessing. He’s not as skillful as most. He’s not blessed with great speed or the best shot. But he wants to compete. He knows that this is his shot and he’s definitely making the most of it. He’s earned every single goal. It’s pretty amazing that he’s providing about 60 percent of our offense right now with his 16 goals and five assists. We were looking for someone to count on and he’s been that.”
Added Rusek, “I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I’m not complaining. He’s done a great job for us.”
The Blue Tide has posted a 12-1-1 record thus far, but Harrison was shockingly eliminated from the Hudson County Tournament Saturday with a loss via penalty kicks to Union City in the quarterfinals.
But the Blue Tide will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming NJSIAA state tournament and Aponte will be ready to lead the way, much like he always hoped he would.
Aponte’s goal-scoring explosion has enabled him to gain some looks from local colleges like Montclair State and Ramapo, but if he continues to find the net at this clip, who knows what other school might show interest.
“I definitely have the motivation to play in order to get to college,” Aponte said. “But right now, I’m doing this for the team and we need it.”