It was a momentous football season for the Harrison High School Blue Tide in 2016, culminating in the team’s first appearance in the NJSIAA state playoffs in 27 years.
The Blue Tide managed to win five games under new head coach Michael Hinchcliffe, the first time that Harrison won as many as five games since 2003.
Although the Blue Tide dropped their Central Jersey Group II opener to Roselle, there was nothing that could calm down the excitement caused by Harrison football fever a year ago.
Now, people are generally expecting a repeat. Or even better. That’s the nature of the beast, something that Hinchcliffe, who inherited the role as head coach just a few weeks before the season opener a year ago, is fully well aware of.
“Everyone wants to believe that,” Hinchcliffe said. “The talent only comes up every so often to be competitive. I told the kids last year that they were going to win their first four games and they did. I think the biggest goal this year is coming together as a team. I think we need everyone to come together and take it to another level.”
But winning again in 2017 won’t be easy, considering that do-everything quarterback Mike O’Donnell is gone. The Observer Male Athlete of the Year has graduated after a brilliant football campaign a year ago, providing the Blue Tide with their best signal calling prowess since the days of Ray Lucas almost 30 years ago.
“As much as everyone thinks otherwise, Mikey O’Donnell is gone,” Hinchcliffe said of the three-sport standout who will now play baseball at Kean University. “We have to get everyone else to step it up and maybe win a state game this year. If not win one, then we are going to be in the position to win one. But these kids have to prove to everyone that last year was no fluke.”
It’s hard to do, when the Blue Tide posted a collective 20-93 record over the previous decade prior to Hinchcliffe’s arrival last year.
“We don’t want that,” Hinchcliffe said. “Everyone is scared of going back to what we were, going back to mediocre. That can’t happen.”
It means that a lot of falls on the shoulders of sensational sophomore Mateo DeSosa (6-foot, 185 pounds), who steps into the giant shoes left by O’Donnell’s departure.
“Mateo is more of a quarterback than Mikey,” Hinchcliffe said. “Mikey made a lot of plays with his feet. This kid is going to throw the ball and throw it well. Mateo has a little better ability to break down the play. When he runs, he has a longer stride. And he can get out into the open field. I think we’re going to be able to control the ball with our passing game. He has great vision, especially downfield. He can hold the ball a little longer and still get the ball out there.”
The starting halfback is junior Landor Vallejo (5-9, 150).
“He’s a power guy who is not afraid to lower his shoulder and go for the tough yard,” Hinchcliffe said. “He’s coming up the middle and if you didn’t get him at the line, then you’re not going to get him. He’s going to lower his shoulder and put up the yards.”
The slot receiver is returning starter Dustin Huseinovic (5-11, 200), who had a sensational season grabbing O’Donnell’s passes last year. Now, he’ll get the chance to run under DeSosa’s throws.
“He’s a kid who gets it,” Hinchcliffe said of Huseinovic. “He understands why he’s there. We go as he goes. As long as he can play, then we’ll probably show up at the end of the year in the hunt. We can control the ball with this kid. We’ve picked an offense that puts us in a good passing situation and gives us a lot of options.”
The Blue Tide have a lot of talent in the wide receiver position, with returning starter Mike Oeckel (5-11, 185), Paul Mobus (5-9, 200) and Ray Chico (5-9, 155) all back to catch passes from DeSosa. All three are juniors.
The offensive line has to develop along with the new quarterback.
Senior Saul Santana (6-2, 180) is a three-year starter on the offensive line at tackle. He is joined by junior Daniel Mobus (5-9, 200) at tackle, with junior Elvin Pina (5-10, 220) at center and senior Omar Veliz and junior Christian Montilla (6-0, 200) at guard.
Defensively, the Blue Tide utilizes a conventional 4-3 formation.
Montilla made All Group II at defensive end last year.
“He had a great year there,” Hinchcliffe said.
Santana plays the other defensive end slot.
Pina and Daniel Mobus are the defensive tackles.
The outside linebackers are Paul Mobus and Huseinovic, who is all over the field.
Vallejo is the middle linebacker, even if he is a bit undersized.
“I feel he can do the job,” Hinchcliffe said. “I have nothing to go on, other than his attitude, which has been tremendous. He’s not afraid of hitting. I really think he’s going to be a nice player for us.”
The cornerbacks are Chico and Oeckel with DeSosa and sophomore Kyle Zamora at safety.
“Without a doubt, I’m very confident about this team,” Hinchcliffe said. “At the very least, we should duplicate what we did last year. I’m confident in the fact that we’ll win five. I like our athleticism in what I’ve seen in the offseason. If that shows up in games, we should be a dangerous team.”
The Blue Tide will open their season against neighboring rival Lyndhurst.
One thing is for certain. The head coach will be more prepared than a year ago.
“You could say that,” Hinchcliffe said. “Last year, we sort of got thrown into it. This year, so far, so good. I think we’re all better prepared. We’ve been doing weight conditioning and drills since June 11. So that’s much better.”
Maybe the preparedness will translate to more victories for the Tide in 2017.