The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team enjoyed a solid season a year ago, winning 20 matches, losing just three – but it was the third one that hurt the most, as the Blue Tide fell to Dover in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship game.
The Blue Tide lost a lot of solid performers from last year’s team, but two of the losses came in an unconventional way when midfielder Kaleb Braga and forward Israel Dos Santos both decided to transfer to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark instead of remaining with the Blue Tide this season.
The loss of Braga and Dos Santos to another school was a kick in the teeth for veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek and his coaching staff, which consists of his brother John and his father Mickey.
“John and I have prided ourselves that when we have kids, we don’t lose them,” Rusek said. “We make our players’ years as successful as possible. The landscape of high school soccer in New Jersey has changed so much over the last five years or so. There’s a big difference especially in terms of transfers. We’ll adjust and be okay. It is disappointing and it hurts when kids step away.”
But as the Ruseks turn the page on the lost players, they still believe they will feature one of the best teams in northern New Jersey – mainly because they may have the best overall player in the state on their roster.
Senior Omar Sowe returns for his final year with the Blue Tide. It’s hard to improve on the record-setting 37 goals and 31 assists that Sowe put up last season, but that’s the goal.
“I’ve never had a kid do both like that,” said Rusek, who begins his 19th season as the head coach of the Blue Tide. “We’ll wait and see what he can do his senior year, but so far, he’s been incredible for us. If there’s anyone I can see having a repeat performance from what he did last year, it’s Omar. He’s a big, strong kid and he has such a soft touch with the ball. He’s smooth as he runs, like a gazelle. He’s good with both feet. He’s also a smart soccer player who loves the game. We’re just so lucky to have him. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone.”
Sowe has all the makings of being the state Player of the Year. At the very least, he will receive consideration. He’s that good.
The Blue Tide will look to three players to handle the duties in net as goalkeepers. Rusek eventually would love to have just one, but for now, seniors Eduardo Nelson, Joshua Tapia and Cristian Quispe are all battling for playing time. Nelson got the majority of the playing time a year ago.
“We’re doing our best to keep all three happy,” Rusek said. “It’s rare to have three kids in the same year. I wish one was a junior so he could come back. Then things would have worked out perfectly. All three are in their senior year. We will take it game by game and see who’s hot that week. By the time we get to mid-October, I’d love to have one.”
The sweeper is junior Edison LaTorre, who was more of an offensive minded player, but was moved to the back line because of his skill.
“He’s had a good summer and he’s in a good position to have a good year,” Rusek said of LaTorre.
Senior Lucas Trinidade is the team’s stopper.
“He’s a tough kid who just keeps getting better every year,” Rusek said. “He’s someone who we’re counting on to have a good senior year for us. He’s very versatile and we hope that his versatility plays a part in our success.”
Junior Steven Espinosa, who played forward last year and scored six goals, has been shifted to the back line this year.
“He’s a smart soccer player,” Rusek said. “He’s handling the transition well. We feel he’s best at this position.”
A pair of sophomores, namely Ronald Carillo and Mustapha Sowe, Omar’s younger brother, will handle the duties on the back line. The youngest of the three Sowe brothers (older brother Modou is currently playing at Rowan University) is a solid defender.
The Harrison midfield features senior Louis Palomino, junior Jairo Araujo (a transfer from Brazil) and senior holdover Maicol Diaz, who had six goals and 12 assists last year.
“I think we’re counting on him to do more,” Rusek said of Diaz. “He should be able to step up.”
Sophomore Gabriel Abreu is the first midfielder off the bench for the Blue Tide.
Junior Allan Melo will benefit from playing with such an unselfish forward as the older Sowe.
Omar Sowe tied the school record with 37 goals last year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could break the mark this year.
The Blue Tide open their season Thursday at 4 p.m. at Secaucus. They play New Milford at home next Monday at 4 and then has the showdown with neighboring rival Kearny at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m.
“We think it’s going to be a good season,” Rusek said. “Every season is like a jigsaw puzzle. You try to put the right pieces together in the right places. We’ll figure it all out. I hoped we would be a little ahead of the pace by now. I like what I see from the younger kids. We may have to sink or swim with them. The one thing that sticks out is that we have a good group of kids. They get along well with each other. The starting group is talented. We need to build more of a bench, but all’s well right now. The goal is to move forward with these kids we have.”
And in typical Harrison fashion, they won’t worry about who’s not there, just who’s there. Count on the Blue Tide to be right there come late October into November.
The Harrison boys’ soccer team should have another solid season this year. Front row, from left, are Mustapha Sowe, Steven Espinoza, Dylan Leon and Louis Palomino. Back row, from left, are head coach Mike Rusek, Ederson LaTorre, Ronald Carrillo, Christian Quispe, Joshua Tapia and Maicol Diaz. Photo by Jim Hague