When your high school football program is coming off a horrendous 1-9 season and you’re the new head coach, chances are that there are bound to be some bumps in the road.
But for the most part, it has been smooth sailing for North Arlington High School and the new head coach of the Vikings Paul Savage.
“The transition has gone pretty well,” said former assistant coach Savage, who takes over for long-time coach Anthony Marck, who resigned at the end of last season. “The kids all know me. What I’ve tried to do is get on a personal level with each and every one of them. It’s not the left guard or the right tackle speaking. It’s Robert or Pete or Louie. I want to hear from them, learn from them. I want them to understand what their role on the team is. I have to have a relationship with everyone and get to know the whole team. I want it to be the best meshed team around.”
Savage said that the players all realize that it’s a different era for NA football.
“They all know things have changed,” Savage said. “Relationships are going to get better. Fundamentals and basics are going to get better. We know we have some talent. We just want the players to understand what we need from them in terms of the little things to help us become a competitive team.”
One of the little things _ no pun intended _ is diminutive junior quarterback Will Cruz (5-6, 160).
“Will needs to know that our QB 1 has to be the one to take the lead and take charge,” Savage said. “We all asked Will to grow up quickly last year as a sophomore who started. He had to take over the leadership role as a sophomore. He held it together pretty well and had a good year. I was the offensive coordinator last year, so I worked with Will. We will spread the ball out more, but there isn’t much changing with Will.”
Cruz will have senior Brandon Torres (5-10, 175) returning for his final campaign. Torres missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, but he’s back and healthy at running back for his final campaign.
Senior Nick Fernandez (5-8, 180) is another running back that Savage can call upon.
The receiving corps is deep and young, with juniors Jaden Martinez (5-7, 150) and Valentin Boyko (5-7, 160) the lone upperclassmen of the bunch.
Sophomores Danny Gonzalez (5-10, 175) and Alvaro Gongora (6-0, 180) and freshman Joey Witt (5-7, 155) rounds out the receivers.
“Most of them had experience from last year,” Savage said. “It’s time for them to step it up right away and play older than what they are.”
The offensive line features only one senior in Louis Jaikel (6-1, 215), but Jaikel did not play last year. Junior Dante Andrews (5-11, 215) is the other tackle. Junior Kenan Kimil (5-9, 210) is the center. Junior Jose Gongora (5-10, 225) is at one of the guard slots. Sophomore Jeremiah Mercado (5-10, 230) is a guard, sophomore Robert Tomasko (5-9, 235) can play guard or tackle and freshman Pete Ziakos (5-9, 240) has been getting some looks at center.
The Vikings will utilize a multiple front on defense, but most of the time will be in a 4-4 formation.
Most of the same personnel on offense will get turned around to play defense. Such is the life of a small Group I enrollment school.
Andrews, Jaikel and Tomasko will carve up the time at defensive end, with Mercado, Jose Gongora, Kimil and Ziakos at defensive tackle.
Alvaro Gongora, who is the younger brother of Jose, and quarterback Cruz are the two outside linebackers, with Fernandez and senior Ryan McDermott (5-10, 175) at the inside linebacker slots.
The cornerbacks are Boyko and Martinez, with Witt, Torres and Gonzalez sharing time at safety.
The Vikings open their season next Friday night, Sept. 8 at Secaucus.
Savage just has a simple message to his players.
“We have one motto and that’s to try to get better every single day,” Savage said. “Our younger kids have to step up and play a grade higher.”
But Savage is ready.
“I’m excited,” Savage said. “I know I have big shoes to fill. I’m aware of that. Anthony taught me a lot and put me in the right position to take over. We talk all the time.”
Savage wants one thing.
“I just want them to be tough on both sides of the ball,” Savage said. “I don’t want them to lay back. Don’t test the waters. Come right after people.”
The North Arlington High School football team has a new head coach in Paul Savage (center). From left are Robert Tomasko, Jeremiah Mercado, Kenan Kimil, Savage, Jose Gongora and Pete Ziakos. Photo by Jim Hague