By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Mike Gaccione started to get the idea last spring that Belleville High School veteran head boys’ soccer coach Len Marino was considering stepping down.
“He started throwing hints around,” said Gaccione, who was Marino’s top assistant and junior varsity coach the last few seasons. “I always said to him, `You have to come back.’ But in the spring, he told me that he wanted me to take over.”
Gaccione was asked what it was like to take over for Marino.
“Lenny was such a great mentor,” Gaccione said. “We coached together for so long that we became a good coaching team. We would bounce ideas off each other. Lenny was always such a great help to me.”
With that, Gaccione’s role instantly changed. However, not much else did.
“We didn’t change much,” Gaccione said. “We wanted to add on to what we did last year. Most of our key players were sophomores last year, so they were a year older, bigger, stronger and better. We won the league (the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division) last year, so we wanted to do the same this year and do more in the state and county tournaments.”
It was time for the Buccaneers to raise the bar a bit. “It was nice to win the league,” Gaccione said. “That was fine. Now we want more. We have to have higher expectations. Last year, after we won the league, we didn’t take the state and county as seriously as we should have. I feel this year we have the ability to win the state sectional (the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV).”
That’s saying a lot. “I really believe it,” Gaccione said. “If we just play our game, we should have a shot. We have the same amount of ability as the others.”
The Buccaneers lost only three starters from the team that won the SEC title and won 17 games in 2012.
“Even when we lose kids, we always have others waiting in the wings,” Gaccione said.
You can’t argue with the success. The Buccaneers currently own a 9-2 record and are tied for first place in the Colonial Division race.
“I’m very pleased with the way we’re playing,” Gaccione said.
The Buccaneers have been utilizing three goalkeepers. It’s rare for a team to have that much depth in goal and even rarer for a team to use three.
“I told them in the summer that we were going by committee,” Gaccione said. “I’m pretty pleased with the way they’re playing. We’re going to go by committee until someone stands out. It’s good to keep them all active, because if you have poor goalkeeping, you’re going to lose games. They push each other and go hard every day.”
Junior Kevin Coronel and sophomores Elias Tapia and Jason Cadena are sharing the load in net. Cadena may be getting the edge on the other two with his play of late. The Buccaneers have a standout at sweeper in junior Marlon Rodriguez, who was the starter there last year.
“He’s our quarterback back there,” Gaccione said. “He’s our leader. He’s all over the field and keeps everyone in check.”
The stopper is junior Randy Fernandez, who according to Gaccione, “has stepped up big.”
At one defender is junior P.J. Gencarelli, who was both a forward and a midfielder last year.
“We dropped him back to help with the defense,” Gaccione said. “He’s doing well there. He’s just a great athlete who can play anywhere.”
The other defender is junior Nelson Pichardo, who did not play last year.
“He grew up playing with our core group,” Gaccione said. “He took a year off, then his friends talked him into coming back.”
The Belleville midfield is deep and talented.
Leading the way is junior Max Correa, who had 17 goals last year as a sophomore and is on pace to top that total this year.
“He’s our big playmaker,” Gaccione said. “He’s scoring goals and assisting a lot. We play with a lot of ball possession from the midfield.”
Senior Carlos Castro is another key contributor from the midfield.
“He’s able to control the flow of the game,” Gaccione said. “He’s able to make a run up. We play a free game with our midfield.”
The other midfielders are senior Kevin Mariscal and juniors Matthew Gavidia and Francis Herrera. Gaccione has faith in all three players and uses all three.
“Francis is more of an offensive midfielder,” Gaccione said. “He has a possession game and can move to center midfield if we need him. We don’t lose much with any of them.”
The Buccaneers also have depth at forward.
Junior Luis Lopez has been a great addition to the lineup.
“He came in new to the program last year, but when he came, it was late in the season and we didn’t know much about what he could do,” Gaccione said. “Now, we all know him and he’s more settled in with us.”
The other forwards are seniors Diego Campoverde and Jefferson Chaury, who tallied some clutch goals a year ago down the stretch.
Gaccione is encouraged by the way his team has played recently.
“We’re very happy with what we’re doing so far,” Gaccione said. “I’ve told the kids that we want to win the league, do well in the county and do some damage in the state tournament. We have the team to do it.”
Time will definitely tell as the second half of the season kicks in this week.