A year ago, the Kearny High School boys’ soccer team enjoyed a memorable season, winning the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship for the first time in five years, defeating West Orange via penalty kicks, before falling to Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the overall Group IV semifinals.
It capped a 17-4-2 campaign for the Kardinals that saw the team give head coach Bill Galka the long-awaited state sectional championship that had been eluding him.
Now, as a new season is set to begin next Tuesday against Ferris, Galka is hopeful that his team can make yet another run at state glory.
“Every year, we go through the same thing,” said Galka, who begins his 12th season as the head coach of the Kardinals. “We lose some key guys to graduation and we need some other guys to pick it up. We’re just trying to find the right guys. If we have to rotate people around at the start, then we’ll do that. We have some guys in mind.”
It will be tough for the Kards to replace key players like Adrian Velazquez and Joao Fernandes, both of whom were selected All-Group IV last season.
“They were good leaders and captains,” Galka said. “That’s what we’re looking to replace.”
The Kards also lost a promising player when Patrick Lettre, who made his mark last year as a freshman, moved with his family to Little Falls.
“He was a solid kid,” Galka said. “That’s a solid loss.”
But the Kards have a talented group of performers to make up for the loss of the three key players.
They will also eventually welcome back senior forward John Najarro, who scored 27 goals two seasons ago, leading the Kards in scoring as a sophomore. Najarro transferred to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark for his junior year, but has returned to his Kearny roots for his senior season.
But due to NJSIAA transfer rules, Najarro must sit out the mandatory 30 days, meaning he will miss the first 10 games of the season.
Another key transfer is midfielder Matthew Escobar, who left Hudson Catholic in Jersey City to come back to Kearny. Escobar will also have to sit out the 30 days like Najarro.
For now, Galka is moving forward as if neither player is with the club.
“It’s all about team chemistry,” Galka said. “It’s about who has the hard work and desire to do well for each other.”
The Kards are well stocked in the goalkeeper department. Senior Emerson Vera, who started many of the key games down the stretch for the Kardinals, including posting a shutout of West Orange in the state sectional title game. He is joined currently in goal by senior Bryan Noristz. The two will share the net minding duties for the time being.
Although the Kards lose Velazquez and Fernandes from their back line, they welcome back juniors Marlon Rodriguez and Gerson Ruiz, both of whom started last year. Galka has a host of others to call from along the back line, including seniors Carlos Goncavles, Filipe Dos Santos and Evan Modeste and sophomore Ferbris Gonzalez.
Senior Christian Escobar and sophomore Rafael Bernardino are also in the hunt for playing time at defender.
The Kardinals welcome back senior Jose Escandon to run their offense.
“He’s a creative guy who is very technical with the ball,” Galka said. “He has the ability to control the game.”
Senior Christian Villegas is a captain on the team and a defensive-minded midfielder with a strong leg. Villegas started last season.
Senior Ryan Valdez is another returnee to the Kearny midfield.
“He played a lot last year,” Galka said of Valdez. “We’re looking for more production out of him in terms of goals and assists, more than he got last year.”
Junior Joseph Figueiredo is another talented midfielder who has impressed in the preseason. Senior Esteban Franco and junior Juan Rendon are in the mix for playing time in the midfield, as is sophomore Joao Hornung, who was a key contributor to the Kearny United team that played for the 15-and-under President’s Cup last summer.
Junior Rodrigo Varela is a player to watch among the forward line, along with sophomore Juan Macias and senior Marcos Hidalgo.
“Macias is a hard-working kid,” Galka said. “We really like him.”
So needless to say, Kearny has all the goods to make a run at three championships this fall.
“We would love to challenge for the league, county and state titles,” Galka said. “And we’re expecting to make the push toward all three. We got to the semifinals of the state last year. Part of our motto this year is to one step further in the states than the previous year. We haven’t spoken about that yet, but it’s a major step to do it. And that’s what we expect.”
Galka said his Kards are indeed hungry.
“We have a team that’s looking pretty good,” Galka said. “We just need to get off to a good jump.”
The Kardinals open up on Tuesday, Sept. 5 against Ferris in Jersey City.