When Daniel Pinedo joined the boys’ soccer team at Belleville High School a little more than three years ago, the Buccaneers were struggling.
“We won two games when I was a freshman,” said Pinedo, now a senior. “We won six games, then five. I’ve seen a lot since I’ve been here.”
But before the 2017 season began, Pinedo saw some promise in the Buccaneers.
“I knew that this was going to be an exciting year,” Pinedo said. “It’s my senior year for one, but we all put in a lot of work in the offseason. We played a lot together. I saw the talent and saw what we were capable of. I knew that we were going to have a 100 percent turnaround.”
Pinedo now looks like a genius, because the Bucs have indeed done a complete 360-degree spin from a year ago. The Bucs currently own a 13-5-1 overall record, but more importantly, their 1-0 win over Newark Central last Saturday enabled the Bucs to clinch the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship.
Freshman Kevin Riera scored the game’s lone goal with just two minutes left in regulation to seal the victory.
Sophomore goalkeeper Fernando Pesantez collected 13 saves for the shutout in net.
“It feels great to be able to give this team what it needs,” Pesantez said. “We all leave it on the field and play like a family. Our hard work is now showing. I think a lot of people looked at us as underdogs, but we’re very confident. We’re excited to win this (the SEC Colonial title), but we have to keep our heads focused and give it our all. I think we really all expected a strong season.”
Belleville head coach Gary Powelka also thought that his team would be vastly improved over a year ago.
“Our main goal was to get to perhaps nine or 10 wins,” Powelka said. “I think the key has been working with the younger kids and teaching them discipline. I’m absolutely pleased with what the kids have done this year. I’m sure they all wanted this badly.”
Powelka has watched the development of his younger players like Riera, the striker, who now has nine goals on the season.
“I knew the kid had it in him,” Powelka said of Riera. “It’s been a pleasure to watch him.”
Riera began the season on the freshman team, but he quickly moved up the ladder to become a key member of the varsity, after scoring five goals in two games with the freshman squad.
“I think everyone doubted me, but I knew I could do it,” Riera said. “It feels good to get a chance to play with the older guys right away. I know that if I make a mistake, I have to keep my head up and keep working. The older guys have really made me feel like I’m a major part of the team. This is definitely better than I could have imagined.”
The key to the Buccaneers’ success has been senior forward Ifeanyi Anaemejeh, who has scored a team-high 15 goals this season. That’s an improvement of 10 goals over last year, when Anaemejeh tallied five times.
Another key contributor has been sophomore center midfielder Kevin Manjarrez, who has 10 goals, including two goals in a recent win over Irvington in the opening round of the Essex County Tournament.
“He’s probably our biggest surprise,” Powelka said of Manjarrez.
Eric Munoz has eight goals and Adriel Abreu has tallied five times, so the offensive wealth has been spread around a bit. That’s always good for a team’s morale, when everyone is contributing.
“Belleville is coming,” Powelka said. “We want to compete with the Montclairs, the West Oranges, the MKAs (Montclair Kimberley Academy). We want people to know that Belleville comes to play. We also have about five eighth graders who are very good players, so there’s a lot of talent to be developed.”
The Buccaneers drew the No. 7 seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket and were set to host West Windsor-Plainsboro North in the opening round of the state tournament on Tuesday.
“I think we have the talent to go deep into the tournament,” Pinedo said. “I think we’ve definitely put Belleville on the map. No one thought we would be in this position. Everyone doubted us. If you look at past years compared to this year, we’ve made a huge step forward.”
A step that’s called a league championship. It’s safe to say that Belleville is no longer a soccer doormat. The banner that will hang in the gym will be proof of that.
Belleville freshman forward Kevin Riera has his head on the ball during a recent workout. The Buccaneers clinched the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship last Saturday with a win over Newark Central, with Riera scoring the lone goal in the Bucs’ 1-0 win. Photo by Jim Hague
The Belleville boys’ soccer team works on their passing during a recent practice. The Buccaneers have won 13 games this season, a vast improvement over a year ago, when they won only five times. Photo by Jim Hague