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Category: Sports

It’s a Blue Tide ‘Three-Peat’

11-19 Harrison_web

Harrison wins third straight state sectional soccer title

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer 

HARRISON –

It was the final time that Jorge Castro was getting a chance to play soccer on his home turf at Harrison High School, so the Blue Tide senior midfielder wanted to make sure it was a memorable day.

“I’ve been here for four years and this was my last time here,” said Castro, who led the Blue Tide into action in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship game last Thursday afternoon against Secaucus. “This game really meant a lot to us.” Castro made the most of his last home game, scoring a brilliant goal in the second half, leading the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, giving Harrison its third straight state sectional championship.

“Winning three in a row really means a lot,” said Castro, who unleashed a rocket blast from about 35 yards out that eluded stubborn Secaucus goalkeeper Eric Quitiquit for the final score of the game. “I think they kind of figured out who we were, so they were going to be tough to beat this time.”

Harrison (22-3) had defeated Secaucus twice previously in the regular season, winning by 5-0 and 3-0 margins. But the Patriots were a more stubborn opponent this time, not allowing a goal until Ali Lakhrif’s header off a Leandro Gonzales cross went past Quitiquit with 32 minutes remaining in the game.

It was the 35th goal of the season for Lakhrif, who broke the all-time single season school record for goal scoring earlier last week.

Lakhrif was wearing two different colored shoes, one a fluorescent orange and the other a luscious lime green.

“I wanted to do something a little different for good luck,” said Lakhrif, who has now scored 10 goals in the five games that he’s donned two different colored cleats. “I was glad to be able to get the first goal, because after that, the game opened up for us.”

Harrison head coach Mike Rusek realized that Secaucus was a tougher opponent than the first two games this season.

“It was very tough to beat this team three times,” Rusek said. “The coach (Christopher Garcia) knows us well and they played us hard. They had a lot of good, tough kids. You fear that you’re playing against a team like this and you dominate action, but you make one mistake, have one breakdown and the result could be different. We said to them at halftime that they just had to keep coming, that the goal would come.”

Gonzales made a perfect cross and the guy with the two different colored shoes used his head to add to his scoring record.

“We knew that our best opportunity to score was from our midfield,” Rusek said. “Leandro made a perfect pass and Ali made a perfect header.”

The score remained that way until there was 13 minutes left, when Castro made his sensational shot.

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison defender Hector Lago (2) moves towards the ball during the Blue Tide’s 2-0 win over Secaucus in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship game last week.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison defender Hector Lago (2) moves towards the ball during the Blue
Tide’s 2-0 win over Secaucus in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I
championship game last week.

 

“He’s always been capable of doing that,” Rusek said. “It was a great shot. It was perfect timing, because it made us very tough to beat with a two-goal lead.”

As it turned out, the two teams could have played until next August and Secaucus would still be searching for a way to get a goal. The Patriots actually played the ball past midfield only a handful of times and never got off a legitimate scoring opportunity. Goalkeeper Nick Araujo didn’t have to work too hard to collect his 17th shutout of the season. He was credited with making one save, but it certainly wasn’t a memorable one. That’s how dominant the Blue Tide’s play was in the midfield and their back line.

It marked the 10th time in 15 years that the Blue Tide captured a state sectional title under the tutelage of Rusek and his brother and assistant coach John Rusek. The Blue Tide were slated to face Section 1, Group I champion Waldwick in the overall state semifinals Wednesday at Indian Hills High School.

A win there would put the Blue Tide in place to capture the 27th overall state championship in the school’s rich and storied history. The Group I state title game is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Kean University, with the scheduled starting time to be approximately 3 p.m.

First things first. The Blue Tide needs to beat Waldwick to move on.

The Blue Tide has fallen short of that overall state title in each of the last two years – something that the players definitely remember.

“This was just the first step,” Lakhrif said. “We want to win it all this year.”

“We’re going to do it this year,” Castro said. “I know it.”

“It’s a good feeling,” Rusek said. “We have 14 seniors on this team and they had not lost on this field since their freshman year in 2011 against Glen Ridge (in the state sectional title game). They enjoyed a lot of success on this field. They’ve been with us a long time. They deserve this.”

At the end of the game, Rusek managed to get his seniors on the field so they could be playing when the final few seconds ticked off.

“Every year, it’s a different feeling, but these kids have worked so hard,” Rusek said. “Things have seemed to fall into place for this team. We’re the last team in Hudson County to still be playing, so we’re very proud of that.”

Nutley girls’ soccer season ends in sectional title game

soccer

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When the high school girls’ soccer season began in earnest last August, Nutley High School head coach Mike DiPiano didn’t know what the future held.

After all, the Maroon Raiders graduated nine seniors from last year’s team that won 18 games and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III semifinals.

“I couldn’t let the kids know that I had doubts,” said DiPiano, who began his third season at Nutley. “I did have concerns. We graduated four defensive starters and a goaltender. I knew that we had goal scorers in (Victoria) Kealy and (Zoe) Steck, but I wondered could they score enough for us to win.”

No one could have ever imagined what would transpire in a span of just two months. The uncertainty of August became a championship run in November.

Although the season ended Friday with a tough loss to Roxbury in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game, the Maroon Raiders can walk away with their collective heads held high.

“We went further than any other team in school history,” said DiPiano, noting that the Maroon Raiders had never participated in a state sectional title game before Friday. “They all bought in and came together. They had sleepovers and movie nights. They had cookiebaking sessions, went pumpkin picking, apple picking and go-cart racing. They really made this team into a family. It was great to see.”

The Maroon Raiders finished the season 16-6, but three of those wins came in the state tournament, including a clutch win over West Morris in the sectional semifinals. West Morris was the team that eliminated the Maroon Raiders from the state tournament a year ago.

The team featured standout returnees in forwards Kealy (24 goals and 16 assists) and Steck (17 goals, 13 assists). Everything the Maroon Raiders did offensively was centered around the play of the two standouts.

Kealy, headed for Rider University on a scholarship, was once a defender at Nutley, but was moved up front and her entire life changed.

“She led by example,” DiPiano said of Kealy. “She played out of position as a freshman defender on a team that won three games. She did whatever we asked of her and did a great job as a leader.”

More importantly, Kealy leaves Nutley girls’ soccer with a legacy as the school’s all-time leading goal scorer, tallying an astounding 79 goals during her brilliant career.

“There were a lot of tears Friday and that’s understandable,” DiPiano said. “It was a tough day. But I let her know that she was one of the reasons why we were able to turn this thing around. She really had a great career.”

Kealy became the program’s second NCAA Division I player over the last three years, joining Natalie Melillo, who is at Troy University in Alabama and scored four goals there as a freshman this season.

“We feel we have players coming out of this program who can play at the next level,” DiPiano said.

When the time comes, Steck will become a major college player as well. Only a sophomore, Steck is already getting attention from Division I schools.

“We’re proud of that,” DiPiano said.

However, DiPiano should be most proud of the way his players developed this season.

When the season began, he had a goalkeeper who hadn’t played competitively in almost four years and had a host of underclassmen playing major roles in the defensive back line.

But junior Sarah Roselli emerged as the team’s goalkeeper, replacing last year’s Observer Co-Female Athlete of the Year Grace Montgomery. Roselli, who played tennis her first two years of high school, didn’t receive medical clearance to play soccer after suffering concussions as a middle school player, but DiPiano knew that Roselli could handle the responsibilities if healthy.

“I saw her play when she was younger and I knew if she could play, she would do fine,” DiPiano said.

Lauren Holden is a freshman who was given the responsibilities of being the team’s sweeper.

“I also saw her play when she was younger,” DiPiano said. “She comes from an athletic family (sister Emily is Nutley’s ace pitcher during softball season). Lauren is just a good soccer player. I knew she wouldn’t play like a freshman.”

Darby Fischer is a sophomore who became the team’s stopper.

“She was very tough,” DiPiano said. “Darby and Lauren Holden kept us together.”

Freshman Jela Small played both at defender and in the midfield.

“She’s a dynamic player,” DiPiano said. “She has a bright future.”

Senior Julie Fredericks, a first-year varsity starter, junior Melissa Alvarez and sophomore Angeli Bossibaly all did great jobs assisting the defensive backline that was once a question mark and evolved into the team’s strength.

Sophomore Jennifer Callaghan became a good ball distributor in the midfield. Senior Kaitlyn Salisbury and junior Sam Chimento were also major contributors in the midfield, along with Sarah Grueter and Maise Jelley.

They all molded well with the immense talents of Kealy and Steck up front, as potent a 1-2 scoring attack that could be found in northern New Jersey.

While the Maroon Raiders graduate a host of seniors, especially All-State candidate Kealy, the prospects look very good for the years to come, especially with Steck returning for two more soccer seasons.

“This team was a huge success story for the program, for the school and for the community,” DiPiano said. “I’m very proud of them. We won one state game two years ago, two last year and three this year. We’re moving in the right direction.”

If the progression remains the way it has been over the first three years of DiPiano’s regime, then a fourth win in the state playoffs should finally mean a state sectional title in 2015.

Lyndhurst’s great cross country season ends at Group championships

Cross_web

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

HOLMDEL – 

It had been a brilliant cross country season for the Lyndhurst High School boys’ team, one that culminated in the NJIC-Colonial Division championship and the second straight NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I title.

So when the Golden Bears took to the tough and treacherous course at Holmdel Park last Saturday for the overall Group I state championships, there was hope that the Bears could muster up yet another brilliant performance to move on to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions this weekend.

But it didn’t happen.

The Golden Bears didn’t get the performance they were hoping for and finished fourth, just missing on a berth in the M of C by a total of just nine points.

“We didn’t have our ‘A’ game today,” Lyndhurst head coach Michael Picardo said. “We knew we needed our best today and we didn’t get it.” Stephen Covello was the top Golden Bear runner, coming home in 14th place in 17:15.36. Teammate William Hooper was right behind in 15th place, clocked at 17.16.96. Dylan Stanco was next, earning 17th place in 17:19.14. The trio tried desperately to move up to make more of an impact, but it wasn’t to be.

“In the beginning, I got trapped in the back,” Covello said. “I couldn’t move. Going up the hill, it was pretty hard to get past anyone. I had to run on the edges, between the trees and everything. Once we got out of the woods, we had a lot of ground to catch up and it was hard. I was trying to go for it and couldn’t get there.”

Covello said that he was looking for his teammates as well.

“We tried to run as a pack,” Covello said. “Billy (Hooper), Stanco and I were all together. But I didn’t know where we were. Making up ground in a race like this with so many runners is really tough. We tried to push each other to the end.”

Hooper agreed.

“I think we all got out slow,” Hooper said. “At one point, I was like in 50th place as we entered the first mile. I tried to pass so many people, but it was so hard. I got tripped about five or six times because I’m so tall and have long legs. People were hitting me left and right. Once everyone got out, it was hard to catch up. We just couldn’t get past them.”

Andre Francisco was the next Golden Bear finisher, crossing the line in 30th place. Isaiah Aviles was 58th and Anthony Dell Aquila finished in 61st place.

Despite the disappointing finish, Picardo said that the team had a lot to be proud of.

“I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” Picardo said. “In fact, I’m ecstatic. Sure, this hurts right now, but I’m super proud. This is the greatest bunch of kids I’ve ever coached. I can’t ask for anything more. We’re a true team in every sense.”

The runners themselves realized how great of a season it was.

“I’m very proud of these guys,” Hooper said. “Four years of hard work definitely paid off. It’s not the way we wanted it to end, but we worked so hard to get to this point.”

Covello, the heart and soul of the team, agreed.

“This is heartbreaking,” Covello said. “It hurts. We wanted to go out and win this. But this one race doesn’t dictate what we did all year. I’m unbelievably proud of these guys. It’s been my honor to have run with them. I wouldn’t have changed things for the world. We won back-to-back state sectionals, the first time in the school’s history. I wouldn’t trade any one of these guys for anyone.”

Covello said that there will come a time when the pain of Saturday’s disappointment will fade away.

“I wanted to get one more chance to run with these guys,” Covello said. “It’s really heartbreaking. But we accomplished a lot and I know the guys next year are in good shape to do well again.”

There’s a program at Lyndhurst now. In years past, there were teams led by Patrick Rono, who was a physical presence, a sure-fire stud.

This year’s team wasn’t blessed with a ton of natural athleticism. There were no physical specimens, no physiques that would incite fear in opponents.

But the Golden Bears had a lot of heart and desire. More importantly, they were a team.

“That sums it all up,” Picardo said. “They were a team in the truest sense. I’ll remember this team forever.”

The Golden Bears will be immortalized for helping put the Lyndhurst cross country program on the map, thanks to the diligence of the senior leaders.

Lyndhurst wins NJSIAA cross country title again

CrossCountry_web

Golden Bears romp to 2nd straight North 2, Group I title

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

Before the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I sectional cross country championships last Saturday at Greystone Park in Morris Plains, Lyndhurst High School head coach Michael Picardo thought that the Golden Bears had a solid chance to not only do well, but to dominate.

“I didn’t want to sound cocky, but I thought if we all brought our ‘A’ game, we were going to crush it,” Picardo said. “We ran lights out.”

Led by senior Stephen Covello, who finished second overall in 17:11.08, the Golden Bears had a parade of runners cross the finish line in succession.

Covello was second, followed by teammate William Hooper, then Dylan Stanco and finally Andre Francisco. One right after the other, second, third, fourth and fifth. All four runners are seniors, wanting to make sure that their final season is certainly a memorable one.

The dominating performance enabled the Golden Bears to secure their second straight state sectional title, easily outdistancing runner-up New Providence by almost 30 points.

Picardo said that the team followed the lead of Covello, who was nothing short of brilliant.

“Stephen is the heart and soul of this team,” Picardo said. “We were without him last year (because of a bout with mononucleosis). For him to come back this year and run this well, it’s amazing. He’s the focal point of this team. He personifies what cross country is all about. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s all heart and that’s what we are.”

Covello said that he didn’t pay attention to Jordan Price of New Providence, who won the race.

“I wasn’t really concerned about him,” Covello said. “I just had to get out and finish strong. I felt really good, so I decided to go for it. I just ran with the pack and we all pushed each other. I knew I had this in me. I just had to show it.”

Hooper was next, crossing the finish line in 17:14.40.

“I think running together was definitely the key,” Hooper said. “Everyone just got out so fast and we just stayed there. We kept telling each other that we had to stay in the group. It just all fell in line.”

Stanco was next, posting a time of 17:15.57.

“I never saw us run like that before,” Stanco said. “Just being together like that was incredible. I think we all ran 10 times faster because we ran as a team. It definitely means more to do it as a team.”

Francisco followed in fifth, finishing in 17:20.74. That’s four runners, all classmates, all teammates, all friends, finishing in a state sectional, one after another, in a span of just nine seconds. That’s it – just nine ticks apart.

“I think it shows how much we’ve bonded,” Francisco said. “The hard work finally paid off. It’s a great feeling, because it’s the first time in Lyndhurst High School history that a team won back-to-back state sectional championships. This was the hardest race ever.”

It was a tough race, because early on, both Hooper and Francisco slipped in the Greystone mud and fell.

“It meant more that we got up and finished,” Francisco said. “I tried hard to catch back up again.”

“I had no idea that they fell,” Picardo said. “They’re all heart and guts. Absolutely, we’re a team, first and foremost. We have a great pack of runners who stay together. Today was the best race our program has ever run. They bust their tails together. They’re lunch pail kids. They work hard and go to work. And they’re champions.”

The Golden Bears also received solid efforts from sophomore Xavier Locke, who was ninth overall in 17:42.07, junior Isaiah Aviles, who was 11th overall in 17:49.95 and junior Anthony Dell Aquila, who was 12th overall in 18:01.87.

“When I said I knew, I did,” Picardo said. “I knew what they were capable of.” It meant that all seven of the Golden Bears’ runners finished among the top 12 overall. Yes, that’s domination.

The Golden Bears now move on to the overall Group I state championships at Holmdel Park in Holmdel Saturday after; “Let’s see what happens there,” Picardo said.

The Lyndhurst girls finished fourth in North 2, Group I, led by Lindsary Cirne, who was 15th , and Alexis Gerbasio, who was 16th overall.

Kearny’s Vega finishes NYC Marathon

Vega_web

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Jason Vega experienced a life-changing year in 2010.

“I wanted to do something different,” said the 49-year-old Kearny resident. “I felt like I was getting old. My father passed away in 2009. I wanted to do something that my kids would be proud of.”

So Vega, an avid musician and guitar player who was once in a rock band, decided to become a marathon runner. Yes, just like that.

“I did a little running when I was in high school (at Christ the King in Middle Village in Queens, N.Y.),” Vega said. “But I quit during my freshman year. I put it in my head that I wanted to run a marathon for my kids (Danielle and stepson Nick Martinez).”

And Vega didn’t want to run just any other marathon.

“If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it on the biggest stage, namely New York,” said Vega, who handles receiving at a local food distributor. “When my father passed away, that was it for me. I was a two-pack- a-week cigarette smoker. I drank beer. I had to do something.”

Vega’s wife, Diane, was more than supportive in his quest.

“But she knew that no way it would happen,” Vega said.

When Vega began to train regularly, he certainly had his obstacles.

“I was horrible,” Vega said. “My mind was saying that I could do it. But my body was saying, ‘Oh, no.’ The first couple of miles, it was embarrassing. I needed to do it the right way.”

So Vega found a marathon training regimen that sneaker magnate Nike initiated.

“I followed the letter of the law,” Vega said. “I did everything that the program told me to do. I learned about the proper shoes to wear. I learned about the tools I needed.”

After following the 28-week routine, Vega felt like he was ready. So he applied to run in the New York City Marathon, entering the lottery for possible entrants. It was a shot in the dark, but Vega had the goal in mind.

“I set a goal and I had to see it through,” Vega said. “It took a lot just to get me going.” Vega eventually got the determination and got the approval to run in the NYC Marathon in 2010.

“I read my magazines and other resources,” Vega said. “I found a better way of eating. I became a pescadorian (which means Vega only eats fish one day a week). I found a root-based diet. As a runner, I started to improve. It was nothing to be proud of and was definitely ugly, but I kept going. I actually started feeling a lot better.”

However, disaster struck. Three weeks before the race, Vega suffered a strained Achilles tendon.

“I was doing some training on River Road and I felt a sharp pain in my leg,” Vega said. “I was hobbled bad, but I was determined.”

With the help of Kearny chiropractor and therapist Jim San Fillippo, Vega nursed the injury. “

Jimmy took care of it,” Vega said. “I thought that was it. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But Jimmy got me to the starting line.”

Vega said that the experience of running in 2010 was motivation to do it again.

“It was amazing,” Vega said. “You couldn’t imagine the amount of emotion I felt, all the things that go through someone’s head. You see all the people in the streets. It’s unbelievable.”

Vega had a host of supporters behind him, a group that he called “Team Vega.”

“Halfway through the race, I was feeling good, but then I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Vega said. “There was a whole bunch of Kearny people cheering me on. They bounced around from mile to mile. I had a huge support team.”

At one point, Vega thought he was done.

“It was around the 22-mile mark and I thought I was going to quit,” Vega said. “I hit the wall hard. I was ready to tap out. But then I saw my wife and kids and said I can’t do it. I couldn’t let them down.”

Vega finished the 2010 race in four hours, 46 minutes and 22 seconds.

“I remember seeing the finish line ahead of me and got a little boost of energy,” Vega said. “I did it.”

Vega was hooked. He was a marathoner.

He ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2011 and Chicago in 2012. He also competed in the New Jersey Marathon in Long Branch.

But the goal was to get back into the New York City Marathon, where it all began.

“Lady Liberty beat me up bad the first time I ran it,” Vega said. “It was like she took her torch and beat me over the head with it.”

Vega didn’t apply to run the NYC Marathon the last two years, feeling fortunate that he didn’t get in two years ago after Hurricane Sandy did its local damage.

But two weeks ago, Vega was intent on being an entrant in this year’s race.

“I got an e-mail telling me that I was in,” Vega said. “Then I saw that $263 was withdrawn from my savings.”

That’s the entrance fee for the NYC Marathon these days. It costs a pretty penny to run the streets of New York.

“I’m dedicated,” Vega said. “This time, I left nothing to chance. I had a debt to settle with the race. I was going to do it again.”

Vega said that he trained five days a week, running anywhere between 30 and 40 miles a week.

“This time, I was ready,” Vega said.

Vega completed the 26.2 miles in four hours, 24 minutes and 30 seconds.

“I was so pumped,” Vega said. “I really wanted to break four hours. That was the goal. Once I started to see that slip away, then I really wanted to leave it all on the course. My time was pretty good for someone my age.”

Vega now has another goal in mind – namely the Boston Marathon.

“My kids are blown away,” Vega said. “They’ve inspired me to do more. Danielle, my daughter, wants to run with me. I’ll wait for them to finish or they’ll wait for me. But I’m not going to let them beat me.”

Vega’s next marathon will be in Long Branch in April, 2015.

“The ultimate goal now is to get to Boston,” Vega said.

Needless to say, Vega’s life has been altered over the last four years.

“No way could I have predicted this,” Vega said. “Not even close. I had no idea where the journey was going to take me. But I’m here now and loving it.”

And Vega might get his band back together as well.

“That would be something else altogether,” Vega said.

Harrison’s Lakhrif scores goals in bunches

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Over the years, the Harrison High School boys’ soccer program has been almost like the United Nations of high school sports.

The Blue Tide has featured players from practically all over the globe, especially those with South American heritage.

Last year, the team’s best player, All-State defender Modou Sowe, originated from Africa.

Now, this year’s premier goal scorer, Ali Lakhrif, comes from Morocco.

“He moved to Harrison in the middle of his sophomore year,” said veteran Harrison boys’ soccer coach Mike Rusek. “The season had already ended. I keep a soccer ball in my closet and I brought it out into the hallway to see if he could kick it around. I realized that Ali could speak four languages.”

But the one language that Lakhrif spoke the best was the universal tongue of soccer.

“When John (Rusek, Mike’s assistant coach and brother) and I first started out, Harrison was like the melting pot, because we got kids from all over the place. But Ali said he was from Morocco and that was a first for us.”

It didn’t take long for Mike Rusek to realize that Lakhrif was a special player.

“When the weather got nicer, Ali was taken to (the famed Harrison) Courts to play,” Rusek said. “After seeing him every day, I said to John, ‘I think we have a find here.’ I didn’t see him on the big field, but I saw that he had some good ball skills.”

When Lakhrif’s family moved to Harrison from Morocco, Ali had no idea of the town’s rich soccer background. But he soon found out.

“I came here and wanted to play soccer,” said Lakhrif, who speaks French, Spanish, Moroccan and English. “I wanted to do well wherever we came to, but when I found out about the soccer here, I was very happy about it.”

Lakhrif fit in well with the Blue Tide and scored 15 goals, including the lone goal against Kearny in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals.

“I thought that if I scored that many last year, I could get more this year,” Lakhrif said. But no one could have ever imagined the impact that Lakhrif would have this season with the Blue Tide.

After scoring three goals in the Blue Tide’s 11-0 win over Bloomfield Tech last Thursday in the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state tournament, Lakhrif now has 33 goals, which ties the single season school record for goals. Leo Bodasian had 33 goals in 1973.

Imagine all the great players that have come through the storied Harrison program over the years. Lakhrif has now scored more goals in a season than all but one of them.

“We’ve had some kids get into the 20s and even 30s,” Rusek said. “That’s a special and Tony Dominguez had 30. Harrison is traditionally one of the better soccer programs. Ali has now tied the record. It’s incredible.”

For his efforts, Lakhrif has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

“He’s just a very hard worker,” Rusek said of Lakhrif. “He does all the little drills to get better. Every time he steps onto the field, he’s giving 100%. It’s nice to see that hard work get rewarded. It’s like watching a young professional. He’s such a tough competitor. He has that drive that you don’t see often.”

Lakhrif is also a very unselfish player. He’s collected 19 assists as well this season.

“He’s a forward for us, but I think on the next level, he’ll wind up in the midfield,” Rusek said. “He’s a good student, so he’ll go on to college. He’s still looking at schools right now. Very quietly, he’s scored 33 goals. You don’t hear a lot about him.”

The Blue Tide scored 135 goals this season, the most in Rusek’s coaching career. A lot of that scoring production is because of the Moroccan import.

“I’m all for the team,” Lakhrif said. “It’s not just for me. I think I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I hope to go far in college. I got very lucky to come to Harrison.”

Needless to say, Rusek is pleased with Lakhrif’s production.

“I am pleasantly surprised with what he’s done,” Rusek said. “I was hoping that he could get 20 goals. Well, if we keep playing, he might get double that.”

The Blue Tide was set to face New Providence after press time Monday in the sectional semifinals.

“I’m more than happy with Ali’s production,” Rusek said. “I think we underplay just how talented of a player he really is.”

The record books at Harrison High School will now tell it all, because with one more goal, Ali Lakhrif becomes the all-time single season record holder. That’s a legacy to last forever.

Three local girls’ soccer teams move on

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Three local girls’ high school soccer teams have all advanced to their respective NJSIAA state sectional playoff semifinals that were slated to be played after press time Monday.

The Kearny High School girls advanced to the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectional semifinals with a dominant 11-0 win over Bergen Tech last Friday. That win came on the heels of a 5-0 win over North Bergen in the first round.

In the win over Bergen Tech, Lily Durning erupted for four goals, her best performance to date. Barbara Paiva, who was named the Hudson County Interscholastic League Player of the Year earlier last week, had two goals and an amazing five assists. Breeana Costa had three goals and Amanda Eustice had two for the winners, who were slated to face Montclair Tuesday in the sectional semis.

Nutley advanced to the North 2, Group III semifinals with a 5-1 win over Woodbridge. In that game, Victoria Kealy had three goals, including her 76th career goal, becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in the history of the school. Samantha Chimento and Kaitlyn Salisbury each scored a goal and Zoe Steck had three assists.

The Maroon Raiders were slated to face nemesis West Morris in the sectional semifinals Tuesday. West Morris knocked Nutley out of the state playoffs a year ago, so revenge was certainly on the minds of the Maroon Raiders entering that showdown.

And Lyndhurst steamrolled its way into the North Jersey Section 2, Group I semifinals with an 8-0 victory over neighboring rival North Arlington. The Golden Bears won their first state playoff game over Weehawken by a 7-0 score.

In the win over North Arlington, Mia Luna had three goals and Giana DiTonto had two goals and two assists. The top-seeded Golden Bears were slated to face fifth seed Glen Ridge in the sectional semifinals Tuesday.

Needless to say, it has been an excellent season for the local girls’ soccer teams.

Good news for grid locals

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Nutley makes NJSIAA state playoffs; Harrison earns first victory

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

There is good news to report this week for two local high school football teams.

First, Nutley defeated Weequahic, 28-18, to improve to 6-2 on the season. It was the Maroon Raiders’ third straight victory.

More importantly, the Maroon Raiders have qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs, the first state playoff appearance since 2011.

“It is very rewarding,” Nutley head coach Tom Basile said. “The kids were excited. The locker room was electric. It was like a weight was lifted off their shoulders.”

Basile said that he always believed that the Maroon Raiders were going to have a successful season.

“I absolutely felt that this team was going to be special,” Basile said. “The expectations were pretty high. This is a group that has been together for three years. The last three weeks, we were in do-or-die situations and we won all three. Having three and four-year players really is paying off. We tried to build this program for the last three years.”

Harrison is another local team that enjoyed success over the weekend, but it wasn’t in the same proportion as Nutley. The Blue Tide won for the first time in 2014, defeating Hawthorne, 27-26, giving Harrison its first win of the season.

“When you’re having a season like we’re having, a lot of kids would have thrown in the towel,” said Harrison head coach Matt Gallo, whose team improved to 1-7. “The commitment of the kids has been consistent. They have been working so hard for that first win and they finally got it.”

The Blue Tide actually trailed Hawthorne, 20-0, in the first half and later trailed 26-14 before making the dramatic comeback.

Quarterback Mike O’Donnell was the Harrison standout, rushing for 155 yards on 10 carries and scoring both fourth quarter touchdowns that gave the Blue Tide the win. Sophomore O’Donnell also completed three passes, including a 55-yard touchdown to Jason Sheppard, for 80 yards.

“Trailing 20-0 and being able to come back is a testament to the character of this team,” Gallo said. “They were not giving up on the season. They fought hard in the fourth quarter, regardless of what the score was.”

Gallo was impressed with the way O’Donnell played down the stetch.

“He just took over in the fourth quarter,” Gallo said. “He was the guy who was not going to lose that game. He did everything he could to make sure we were not going to lose. He was throwing and running like he’s an upperclassman. We know we have a very young team, but Mike has been phenomenal. The mission has been to improve every year. We have a bunch of young players who are going to get better.”

Jerry Rodriguez also had a big fumble recovery for the Blue Tide. He’s another sophomore.

“After a while, as the season goes by and you’re playing without a win, it’s easy to get discouraged,” Gallo said. “But nothing has been compromised. Our practice structure has been the same way every week. They’ve all stayed the course.”

The Maroon Raiders once again got a huge performance from junior running back Craig Merkle, who rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns. He also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with his performance.

Pete Russo had a big game, collecting two huge receptions as well his fifth interception on defense.

Rob Melillo was solid at quarterback, completing five passes for 124 yards and a touchdown.

“Offensively, when people focus on Craig, it opens up things for everyone else,” Basile said. “Craig makes everyone else around him better. Rob was our JV (junior varsity) quarterback the last two years and he works so hard at it. He’s gone to the (Peyton and Eli) Manning camp to get better. He knows the offense and knows it well.”

Frank Malanga made 19 tackles on defense, including an interception. Andrew Aiello also had an interception.

“Russo has hands of gold and is always making big catches,” Basile said. “Malanga is always around the football every play”

Needless to say, it was a solid team effort.

The win also put Nutley in position this weekend to play for a Super Essex Conference- Liberty Division championship against Caldwell.

“We talked to the kids about what they had to play for,” Basile said. “We asked them to imagine what it would be like to play Caldwell in a game that didn’t matter and then play in a consolation game instead of the state playoffs. They definitely responded. They all chose to play playoff football. There’s nothing like that atmosphere of a state playoff game.”

So both local teams head to their respective practices this week with something to play for.

“It’s very exciting,” Basile said. “We’re now preparing for the big games ahead.”

After facing Caldwell for the SEC-Liberty crown, the Maroon Raiders appear headed to face No. 3 seed Paramus in the first round of the state playoffs in two weeks.

“We’ve waited 10 weeks for the chance to play these big games,” Basile said. “Now, it’s here. We were talking about it. Now it’s here in front of us.”

Let the big games begin.

Belleville boys’ soccer team keeps winning ways

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

In August, the Belleville boys’ soccer team was headed toward great things in 2014. The school just hired one of its all-time greats in Jim Damiano to run the program, after longtime coach Len Marino had stepped down due to medical reasons.

The Buccaneers were destined for greatness.

Meanwhile, Carlos Goncalves was the program’s junior varsity coach for the prior four years. In August, Goncalves was on vacation, visiting his family in Portugal, when the Belleville Board of Education made more than 50 teacher cuts, one of whom was Damiano.

Without Damiano, the Buccaneers became a program without a coach.

“I got the phone call that Jimmy was no longer going to be the coach,” Goncalves said. “The AD (athletic director Tom D’Elia) called me and asked me if I would take over. I didn’t want to be the head coach, but I decided to do it for the kids. I’m not sure about next year, but I agreed to do it this year.”

The program also brought back a familiar face to be the assistant – namely Marino.

“It helped tremendously,” Goncalves said. “Having Lenny beside me was great. He’s a great individual and a great coach. The kids all know him and love him. Lenny was determined. He said, ‘If you take over, I’ll help you.’ Lenny is my mentor. His help is always needed.”

So Goncalves inherited the program and had to try to stem the tide, keep the players on the right track that was established before him.

“I was doing it for the kids,” Goncalves said. “Regardless of their talent, I would take over for the kids. I put their ability and their play aside. I did it for them.”

Goncalves knew that there was a lot of talent returning on the 2014 roster.

“You always have high expectations when you have a team like this,” Goncalves said. “These kids have been together for like six years. The core of the team has been playing together forever. When they play together as a team for that long, there’s no other choice but to have high expectations.”

The Buccaneers have responded well for the new coach and the old coach, winning 14 times this season and advancing all the way to the Essex County Tournament semifinals for the first time before falling to perennial power Livingston.

 

Photo by Jim Hague Belleville senior defender Marlon Rodriguez (top) is recognized as one of the top defenders in Essex County and the Super Essex Conference while Belleville senior midfielder Max Correa (above) has been outstanding with the ball this season, collecting 23 assists, among the best in the state.

Photo by Jim Hague
Belleville senior defender Marlon Rodriguez (photo at top) is recognized as one of the top
defenders in Essex County and the Super Essex Conference while Belleville
senior midfielder Max Correa (above) has been outstanding with the ball this season,
collecting 23 assists, among the best in the state.

 

“It felt great to be in the semifinals,” Goncalves said. “I told the kids that it was already an achievement to get there. I told them if they walk off the field, they should do so with their heads held high. I just believe that they felt the pressure a little bit, playing Livingston at home with our fans there at night. It was tough for them, but I’m very proud of them.”

The Buccaneers were set to face Morristown in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs Monday.

In goal, the Bucs have used senior Kevin Coronel in goal, but he hit his head in the win against Millburn in the Essex County tourney. Junior Jason Cadena has filled in admirably in net. Junior Elias Tapia is another reserve.

The Buccaneers have two of the best defenders around in seniors Marlon Rodriguez and P.J. Gencarelli, both of whom have been with the program for four years.

“Having them back has helped tremendously,” Goncalves said. “They’ve both together helped us scoring on set pieces, scoring at least 11 goals with headers.”

Junior Maverick Garcia and senior Nelson Pichardo round out the Buccaneers’ solid defensive unit, with seniors David Esquivel and Cesar Idirovo coming off the bench.

Senior Max Correa has been a huge plus for the Belleville midfield. Correa has 23 assists, among the leaders in the state.

“He always plays defensive minded and assist first,” Goncalves said. “He could have scored more goals, because he really has a good shot, but he prefers to give it off for assists. He’s just a complete player.”

Others in the midfield include seniors Randy Fernandez, Kevin Vicente and junior Jairo Campoverde. Senior Carlos Fuentes and junior Chris Sosa are key reserves off the bench, with senior Marco Guaman also coming in as a reserve.

Senior Muhammad Cheikali is another midfielder who Goncalves uses off the bench.

On the forward line, the Buccaneers have Matthew Gavidia, who has scored 10 goals, and senior Luis Lopez, the team’s super striker, who has knocked home 23 goals. “Lopez is tremendously fast,” Goncalves said. “He’s very quick and gets to a lot of balls with his speed. When he gets the ball, he’s very lethal and is difficult to stop.”

Senior Gerson Hernandez can contribute at either the forward or midfield slots. Senior Daniel Bamimore is another key reserve for the Belleville front line.

Whatever happened in the state playoffs Monday would not deter what has been a tremendous season, especially with the preseason turmoil.

“I told them that this has been really exciting,” Goncalves said. “There were a lot of challenges. We faced a lot of tough teams all season. But we grew as a team through it all in all respects. It was exciting, challenging and it was worth it for me to have the experience.”

Maybe the Belleville Board of Education can do the right thing and insure that both Goncalves and Marino, health permitting, will be back next season. The successful program needs to have some sort of stability, even with all the top players graduating.

Lyndhurst’s Failace makes remarkable comeback

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Jessica Failace vividly remembers the day that dramatically changed her life.

“We were playing River Dell in the county playoffs (two years ago),” said Failace, the Lyndhurst High School senior. “My knee twisted the wrong way. I heard it pop.”

The results were staggering. Not only did Failace tear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), but she also damaged her meniscus.

“There was only 1:44 left in the game,” Failace said. “I knew it was bad.”

It also came at an emotional time in Failace’s life. Just eight days prior to the injury, Failace lost her beloved grandfather, Frank Benedetto, Sr.

“It was a hard time for me,” Failace said. “It was absolutely horrible. I had everything I loved to do taken from me.”

However, Failace was determined to get back to the soccer field and to the track (where she competes in the middle distance races).

Failace’s uncle, Frank Benedetto Jr., is a physical therapist who works at Paramus Orthopedic Physical Therapy.

“He took care of me right away,” Failace said. “I was blessed that he helped me. I ended up needing two surgeries. I was non-weight bearing for 66 days. But the day after my last surgery, I started physical therapy. Those were the worst days of my life, but they changed me. Those days made me who I am today. I completely believe that things happen for a reason. It all made me a stronger person.

” Failace worked diligently in her physical therapy in order to make it back to the soccer pitch and back to the track.

“I worked very hard,” Failace said. “I wanted to come back better than ever.”

Fast forward to 2014. Failace entered her senior year with high hopes and expectations.

“I felt as a senior and as a captain, I had to step up for my team,” Failace said.

Last year, Failace played for the Golden Bears, but she was limited in what she could do.

“I doubted myself a little,” said Failace, who played while wearing a bulky brace on her injured knee.

“You could definitely tell that she wasn’t 100%,” said Lyndhurst head girls’ soccer coach Kim Hykey. “She was wearing the brace and she just basically got through the year.”

But when practices began in earnest for the 2014 season, Failace was a different person and player. The bulky brace was gone.

“This year, it’s like, `What injury?’” Hykey said. “Her speed and confidence is back. It’s night and day to what she once was.”

“It upset me that people always came to me and asked me how I was doing,” Failace said. “I wasn’t able to run like I used to. I wanted to become better than I was.”

Failace scored two goals as a freshman, one as a sophomore and two as a junior. But no one could expect the explosion that she has enjoyed this year as a senior.

“She has been playing phenomenally,” Hykey said.

No one could have ever anticipated what Failace could accomplish this season – or for the last two weeks, scoring two or more goals in five straight games.

Failace scored two goals and added an assist against Leonia, had two goals against Queen of Peace, scored two goals and had two assists against Bergen Charter, had the three-goal hat trick against Dwight-Englewood and scored two more against Ridgefield.

For the season, Failace has tallied an astounding 20 goals and added five assists.

For her efforts, Failace has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

“I think I have much more confidence this year,” Failace said. “Going through physical therapy has made me stronger and gives me confidence that I can shoot with either leg. I can shoot from all different angles.”

Hykey said she remembers the turning point for her senior captain.

“When I noticed her turning point was in the beginning of the season,” Hykey said, “She wasn’t scoring much, but I noticed that she hustled and played well against Glen Rock. I don’t know if that gave her confidence, but from that point on, she got started and has been amazing. She has been making shots from ridiculous angles. I didn’t know she could do that.

Added Hykey, “She plays the left side (of the midfield) and has developed a left shot. Her left foot has become very good. She’s not afraid to take a shot with her left foot.”

Failace admits that she has fully recovered from the knee injury.

“I feel like I’m better than ever,” Failace said. “I feel less limited than I was. I’m much better without the brace. It feels great to be able to do this. I’m completely recovered.”

The Golden Bears are also enjoying success, with a 17-2 record and a top seed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs that begin this week.

“She’s been a surprise, a pleasant surprise,” Hykey said.

Hykey likes the chemistry she has with fellow midfielder Amanda Fulcher. Another team captain, Giana DiTonto, has an incredible 31 assists.

“Amanda has done a great job distributing the ball,” Hykey said. “Jess has been getting open through the defense and making shots.”

Hykey also counts on Failace to be a leader.

“She’s awesome,” Hykey said. “She’s like having another coach on the field. She’s smart and knows what has to be done. She always tries to do the right thing.”

Failace also runs track and holds the school record for the 400-meter run as well as two records with Lyndhurst relay teams.

Failace is also a standout in the classroom. She’s currently ranked No. 2 in the Lyndhurst Class of 2015 with a grade point average of 4.16 and a score of 1810 in the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Failace has not made a commitment to college. Because of her experience in the field, she wants to become a physical therapist and will attend an accelerated six-year program in college.

She’s undecided about the school and whether she will play soccer in college. “I might run track and play club soccer,”

Failace said. “I’m not ready to give up playing soccer.” Failace also has a reputation off the field.

“She’s a goofball,” Hykey said. “I will come to my office and find 75 Post-It stickers on my wall that say, ‘Jess is the best.’ I don’t even have to read them to know who’s done it.”

“I just want to leave my mark when I go,” Failace said. “I like having fun. People meet me and they think I’m quiet and shy, but I’m actually quite the opposite.”

So the fun-loving captain is enjoying life once again – and scoring goals at will.

“It all made me a stronger person,” Failace said. “I am absolutely better than ever. I was asked if I wanted to have plastic surgery to hide my scars on my knee. I want them there forever as a reminder of what I’ve been through. They made me who I am.”