By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Matt Gallo took over the head football coaching position at Harrison High School, the program was in the midst of an awful 21-game losing streak.
“It was big,” Gallo said. “They hadn’t won a game here in three years.”
But the Blue Tide won one game last season, snapping the streak, then won another. Although the 2-8 record wasn’t going to win any championships, it was good enough to get the ball rolling.
“It showed the kids that the system works,” said Gallo, who will begin his second season as the head man with the Blue Tide Sept. 12 against Park Ridge.
“It was good to see that the kids are buying into the system.”
The Blue Tide lost 10 seniors to graduation after last season, so it means that this year’s team will be filled with sophomores and even freshmen.
“We might have to go through some growing pains,” Gallo said. “But I’m excited about this underclass. Once they get rid of the growing pains, they’re going to be fine. It might be tough to compete this year with a team with 90% freshmen and sophomores, but we have some good talent in our underclass. They are tough kids who like to compete. If they continue to get better, we can do some good things.”
Leading the way will be sophomore quarterback Mike O’Donnell (5-9, 160), who comes from a long line of O’Donnell athletes who graced Harrison’s field of play.
O’Donnell has all the tools to be a very good signal caller for the Blue Tide.
“He’s extremely cerebral,” Gallo said. “He’s an honors student, so there was no problem with him learning the offense. He knows what I want him to run. It’s almost like having another coach on the field and that’s rare for a sophomore. But that’s the way he is. He’s solid there.”
The fullback is another sophomore in Jeff Cisneros (5-11, 170), who will see most of the carries out of the Blue Tide backfield.
“He’s a tough kid who runs hard,” Gallo said. “He does everything we ask of him and doesn’t complain about anything.”
The two halfbacks are both named Rodriguez, but are not related.
Sophomore Jerry Rodriguez (5-9, 165) and junior Rico Rodriguez (5-10, 170) will also get their fair share of carries, as the Delaware Wing-T offense predicates on sharing the football.
“There’s talent back there,” Gallo said. “I like what we have there.”
Senior Justin Castellano (5-11, 150) is the Harrison wide receiver, with sophomore Hector Rueda (5-11, 175) as the tight end. Castellano is one of the rare senior returnees on the Harrison roster.
The offensive line features some size and experience.
Senior Axel Carmona (5- 11, 210) is a returning starter at tackle, with sophomore Johanser Nunez (5-10, 205) at the other tackle. The guards are junior John Di- Costa (6-3, 230) and senior Brandon Perez (5-9, 200). The center is junior Aaron Velasquez (5-11, 200).
“The strong point of this team is our offensive line,” Gallo said. “We have a lot of faith in them.”
The Blue Tide will utilize a 5-2 defensive formation. Perez and DiCosta are the defensive ends, with Nunez at the nose guard. Carmona and sophomore Adrian Sime (5-10, 190) are the defensive tackles.
Cisneros, Jerry Rodriguez and Rueda are the linebackers. Rueda started at linebacker last year and emerged as a top-notch defensive player.
“We expect a lot from him this season,” Gallo said. “I trust him to make the right calls for us defensively. He’s a tough football player.”
Castellano and sophomore Rafael Santana (5-10, 165) are the cornerbacks, with O’Donnell holding fort at safety.
On paper, it looks tough for a team to compete against others who have rosters comprised with much older players.
But the Blue Tide will try to persevere and hope to gain experience in a hurry.
“I love the makeup of this team,” Gallo said. “We have young kids, but they are competitors. They’re aggressive and want to play. You can’t coach that. You either have that aggressive approach or you don’t. A lot of what will happen this year depends on how these kids develop. I’m excited about that. It should be a good season for us.”