By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When the high school soccer season began in September, veteran Harrison High School head coach Mike Rusek didn’t know what to expect of the Blue Tide.
“Last year, we had 16 of 23 seniors that had been working with us since their sophomore years,” Rusek said. “We thought we had a really good team.”
Unfortunately, the Blue Tide lost in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals and got knocked out of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I tournament in the sectional title game against Glen Ridge. It was a good team that had nothing to show for their talents. So when this season began, Rusek had lower expectations, simply because he basically had a brand new roster.
“They were on the JV (junior varsity) level last year and did a nice job, but we were hoping to find some small moments of success this year,” Rusek said. “And maybe we could build off that. We weren’t expecting to have a great run this year.”
But the players thought otherwise.
“I felt we had great chemistry,” said sophomore midfielder Leandro Gonzales, who Rusek thought so highly of that he made Gonzales a captain this season, even though he’s a sophomore.
“I felt the chemistry on this team was better than last year,” Gonzales said. “I think chemistry is really important, because we all need to know how each other plays.”
Junior Leonardo Trujillo, another midfielder, also agreed.
“We’re like a family,” Trujillo said. “We’re all very close together. Chemistry played a big role on this team.”
So the new Blue Tide roster was set on capitalizing on their camaraderie and togetherness to capture a piece of the school’s rich soccer tradition and past.
Sure enough, it came through when the Blue Tide defeated Brearley Regional last week via penalty kicks to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship.
It was the first time since 2008 that Harrison, the school with the most state championships in state history, captured a state sectional crown.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Trujillo, who was expected to lead the Blue Tide to the state Group I semifinals against familiar foe Wallington Tuesday at Indian Hills.
The winner of the Harrison- Wallington game will move on to the overall Group I state championship game Saturday at The College of New Jersey at 10 a.m.
“No one expected us to win, but we did it,” Trujillo said.
“We had good players last year and didn’t accomplish it,” Gonzales said. “But now, I’m really excited about this team. We’re definitely ready for the challenge.”
Rusek believes that the key to his team has been the ball handling skills.
“I think it’s one of the most skilled teams we’ve had,” said Rusek, whose team owns a 19-1-2 record as they move on to face Wallington. “We’re not very offensive minded and we’re not a defensive team. But we’re able to possess the ball a lot and keep the ball away from the other team. The key has been in the midfield.”
Where standouts like Gonzales and Trujillo play.
The team has also capitalized on their scoring chances, evidenced by Justin Aponte’s scoring prowess. Aponte has 25 goals and nine assists. Kevin Villanueva has 10 goals and 22 assists and if there’s a better player around than junior Modou Sowe, who plays defense and midfield, it would be hard to find. Sowe has 17 goals and 10 assists.
Goalkeeper Carlos Gutierrez, one of the few seniors on the team, came up big in the win against Brearley, making two saves on penalty kicks.
Incredibly, the only time this season that the Blue Tide tasted defeat, it came against Union City in the Hudson County Tournament quarterfinals. The two teams played to a scoreless tie and Union City moved on via penalty kicks.
“When we started the PKs against Brearley, the guys all remembered Union City,” Rusek said. “We really had the experience and how to handle it. We didn’t take it seriously against Union City, but now we practice it every day. It’s part of the game in the state playoffs and it could be a deciding factor. It turned out that it was against Brearley and we were ready. We made sure we didn’t make the same mistakes again. Carlos made two really nice saves and that goes us the win.”
The Blue Tide will face Wallington, a team that they had defeated, 4-0, in the regular season.
“We know what to expect and we have so much experience against them,” Rusek said. “But we can’t take anything for granted. We’re expecting a tougher game and we’re prepared for that. We got it out of our heads that we won that first game and this is different.”
“We’re confident and we know we can beat them, but we can’t think of the last game,” Trujillo said. “We’re just glad to be here.”
And the Blue Tide is back where they belong, competing for another state championship.
“This has been really rewarding,” said Rusek, who has guided Harrison to six of their state-record 24 state crowns. “Everything has been so surprising. It’s been really rewarding. Maybe these kids were just aching to get their chance to show what they could do. It’s been a nice ride and these kids are making the most of it.”