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St. Mary’s heads to state title game, thanks to Kearny trio

Woupes, Banks, O’Sullivan give Gaels fighting chance

Photo courtesy Dennis Hulse From l , Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan, all residents of Kearny, have played major roles for the St. Mary’s of Rutherford Gaels. St. Mary’s will face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday at the College of New Jersey.

Photo courtesy Dennis Hulse
From l , Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan, all residents of Kearny, have played major roles for the St. Mary’s of Rutherford Gaels. St. Mary’s will face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday at the College of New Jersey.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When they were little kids, just learning about the sport of football, Kevin Woupes, Keon Banks and Evan O’Sullivan were friends and teammates, playing on the Pee Wee level of the Kearny Generals program.

“We were all like brothers,” Banks said. “We were all very close from the beginning.”

“We all started out on the same team,” Woupes said. “We made the playoffs together our first year. I’ll always remember that.”

When it came time to choose a high school, O’Sullivan was the first to select St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

“I kind of knew I was going there,” O’Sullivan said. “My father and mother both went to St. Mary’s, so I was continuing the tradition.”

O’Sullivan’s two buddies followed suit a year later.

“I wasn’t so sure that Kevin and Keon were going to come here,” O’Sullivan said. “But it worked out great.”

“My friends all wanted me to go to Kearny, but Evan helped me,” Woupes said. “It wasn’t a tough decision. I knew I wanted to go there. St. Mary’s was always my first choice.”

Banks was the same way. “In eighth grade, when I had to make the decision, I wanted to go to a program that was solid,” Banks said. “I knew some others who went to St. Mary’s. Having Evan there already helped. It made the decision to go to St. Mary’s easier.”

O’Sullivan, a senior, and his long-time friends, both juniors, have been mainstays for the Gaels’ football program since they arrived.

All three play big roles in the Gaels’ offense as running backs. Banks is one of the top running backs in northern New Jersey, compiling more than 1,500 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns this season. Woupes and O’Sullivan are linebackers on defense, Banks a defensive back.

And the long-time friends will get one final chance to play together this weekend, as the Gaels face St. Joseph of Hammonton for the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state championship Saturday afternoon at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.

“It’s great because we’ve been together for practically my whole life,” said Woupes, who does a lot of the blocking for Banks from his fullback slot. “It’s pretty cool that we’re doing this together.”

Veteran St. Mary’s head coach Mike Sheridan credits the efforts of all three Kearny natives.

“They’re all major parts,” Sheridan said. “They’re a big reason why we’re in the position we’re in.”

Sheridan said that the coaching staff was looking for a way to get O’Sullivan more involved this season.

“We were looking for a spot for Evan, because he works so hard,” Sheridan said. “We honestly couldn’t figure out how to use him. But he changed his body in the off-season. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle and had good strength. He got in there at middle linebacker and filled gaps and made plays. He’s done a great job and he’s a big part of our defense.”

Offensively, O’Sullivan gives Woupes a chance to get a little rest as his backup at fullback.

“It’s almost like fate that I got my chance this year,” O’Sullivan said. “I think fate really had something to do with it.”

Woupes has been a mainstay at outside linebacker.

“I’m back to my old position and that has made me feel like I’m more of a bigger component this year,” Woupes said. “I feel like I’ve made a bigger impact. And I love blocking for Keon. It means a lot for me to spring Keon and if I’m not doing it, Evan is.”

Sheridan has nothing but praise for Woupes.

“Kevin is the best all-around athlete we have,” Sheridan said. “He’s just a great football player. He’s constantly around the ball. He’s a tough guy. He’s a silent leader who lets his actions speak for themselves.” Sheridan remembered the day last season when he realized Woupes was the real deal.

“I let him get on the field last year as a sophomore and he made two interceptions against Queen of Peace,” Sheridan said. “I could see the athleticism in him right away. He’s the best all-around player we have.”

Banks’ story is remarkable. At 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, Banks is not the biggest kid in the world. No one knew whether he could handle the grind of being an every down tailback.

Banks likes when people question his size.

“I use that as motivation,” Banks said. “People used to tell me all the time I was too small. That just makes me run harder. Sometimes, it’s good to be small, because the other teams can’t see me at first. I’ve heard teams saying, ‘Damn, I can’t even see that kid.’ That just makes me go.”

Sheridan had somewhat of an idea that Banks could be his go-to guy.

“He’s a powerful kid who is put together well,” Sheridan said. “With that low center of gravity, he’s tough to bring down. He drove our defense crazy last year when he was part of our scout team, so I knew he had potential.” But to gain 1,500 yards and score 25 touchdowns? That puts Banks in an elite category.

“Yeah, not to that extent,” Sheridan said. “No doubt, he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

“It’s definitely been a big surprise to me,” Banks said. “I gained a lot of confidence, working hard in the offseason. My linemen have been a big help. So are my friends Kevin and Evan. Without them all, I wouldn’t have had the season I’ve had.”

Needless to say, it’s been a season to remember for the Gaels, who have posted a 9-2 record this season. Now, they just need one final win for the big prize.

“It’s a great feeling,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re one of the few teams left still playing. It’s great to know that we have another game left.”

The Gaels took part in Rutherford’s Thanksgiving parade last Saturday.

“I got to march in a parade,” O’Sullivan said. “How great is that?”

O’Sullivan is the chauffeur for both Woupes and Banks, going every day to school together. That will soon end when O’Sullivan heads off to college. Woupes and Banks will have to find their own mode of transport next fall.

“This game is important, because I’m not going to see Evan much after he goes to college,” Woupes said. “He’s been a big part of my life. It feels great to be able to play with them and share all of this with them. I never thought I’d get this opportunity.”

Sheridan said that it has been a joy coaching the Kearny trio.

“It’s nice to watch them develop as young men,” Sheridan said. “The whole camaraderie they share. I watched them grow up together, see their maturity and their friendship. They’re never going to forget these times. They got all they could get out of high school, three league championships and three trips to the state finals.”

And perhaps, one shiny state championship to go with everything else.

NA soccer star Cordeiro commits to play at NJIT

Photo courtesy Jim Hague North Arlington senior soccer standout Danny Cordeiro announced last week that he has given a verbal commitment to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and will sign a national letter of intent to attend NJIT in February

Photo courtesy Jim Hague
North Arlington senior soccer standout Danny Cordeiro announced last week that he has given a verbal commitment to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and will sign a national letter of intent to attend NJIT in February

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Most college recruiting processes are long, drawn out affairs. Some of them last for years. A college coach might show some interest in a prospective player when the player is a sophomore, thus beginning the tedious procedure that leads up to signing the letter of intent. Incredibly, almost astonishingly, that wasn’t the case with North Arlington High School soccer superstar Danny Cordeiro. His entire recruiting ordeal lasted all of three weeks. Here’s how the story unfolds. It really is remarkable.

Cordeiro, the Vikings’ standout center midfielder, who had an amazing 30 goals and 18 assists this season, innocently sent an e-mail to the coaching staff at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“I was interested in NJIT, because I want to study engineering,” said Cordeiro, who is almost certain to be an All-Group I selection in a few weeks. “As it turned out, they were already interested in me.”

NJIT assistant coach David Janezic knew of Cordeiro’s exploits and had a keen interest.

“As it turns out, he (Janezic) got a good recommendation from coach Robbie Fitzpatrick, the head coach at Georgian Court,” Cordeiro said. “His wife was an assistant coach at North Arlington, so he put in a good word for me, because he knew I wanted to study engineering.”

So Janezic came to watch Cordeiro play a few times and obviously liked what he saw — a tall, skilled player with excellent speed and good field awareness.

“He came to see me a second time against Wallington and after the game, he told me that he liked what I did on the field, Cordeiro said.

With that, Janezic made a scholarship offer to Cordeiro and the Viking standout quickly accepted. Last week, Cordeiro verbally committed to NJIT, becoming the first NA product to go NCAA Division I in soccer since Eric Chaves went to Marist College seven years ago.

And the whole thing took place in three weeks.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Cordeiro said. “I didn’t think I was going to get any offers, especially not Division I. Most of the Division I schools have already used up their scholarships, so I jumped at the first opportunity. I think it’s great.” Cordeiro will also get to stay close to home, giving his family and friends the opportunity to see him play for the Highlanders, who finished with a 7-9-2 record this season under first-year head coach Didier Orellana.

“I wanted to be close enough, but I’m still going to live on campus,” Cordeiro said. “I might have early practices in the morning and I don’t want to have to rush to get there. But the aspect that my family and friends can see me play is great. I like that. It’s good to be close for that.”

Cordeiro likes the way NJIT plays.

“I like how they’re trying to bring up their young talent,” Cordeiro said. “I’m glad that they’re going to have a good, young team.”

The program’s all-time leading scorer in Division I play is Kearny native Franco Gamero. Unfortunately, Cordeiro and Gamero will never get a chance to be teammates, because Gamero is graduating in the spring of 2014.

North Arlington head coach Jesse Dembowski was elated with the news of Cordeiro’s commitment.

“I’m extremely excited,” Dembowski said. “He’s my first Division I player. He’s so deserving of this. He’s an excellent player. I was just hoping that someone else saw the talent that he had. He’s so passionate about engineering, so this was a great fit for him. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Dembowski liked Cordeiro’s approach.

“He was there for every single practice, working hard every day,” Dembowski said. “And he loves soccer. He would spend his free time devising plays. He would come up with new ideas and run the formations by me. It was like having another assistant coach. He really worked hard at it.”

Dembowski will sorely miss Cordeiro.

“He’s a great role model,” Dembowski said. “He’s already got some of the kids thinking about colleges for soccer. He has absolutely opened doors. He was a great player for us and a great young man.”

Cordeiro won’t officially sign his national letter of intent with NJIT until February, but his decision is etched in stone.

“I’m definitely glad that I’m getting a chance to play D-I,” Cordeiro said. “It was always one of my dreams to get the chance. I’m going to be able to balance soccer with my education. I just want to have a good experience in college. It’s definitely a good feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

More reasons than ever to give thanks this year

Photo by Jim Hague The Kearny cross country team, spearheaded by standouts Aislinn Sroczynski (l.) and Erika Alzamora, give some sportswriters reasons to be thankful.

Photo by Jim Hague
The Kearny cross country team, spearheaded by standouts Aislinn Sroczynski (l.) and Erika Alzamora, give some sportswriters reasons to be thankful.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

As some of our readers may know – and others may be totally oblivious – I have spent this entire month at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, working diligently to try to get my legs back in working condition.

I’ve had a tough go, battling a rare form of neuropathy that has weakened my legs and caused me to fall countless times since the end of the summer. I fell at Red Bull Arena. I fell at the Prudential Center. I fell hard at a high school football game and landed on my back, temporarily ending my ability to cover sporting events.

After a series of falls, causing the Kearny Fire Department to come to pick me up off the floor and the ground, hospitalization was the only recourse.

So here I’ve stayed, since the beginning of November, working with the great Kessler medical staff to try to get better.

And I have improved immensely. My right leg, which was virtually useless when I arrived, is now a little better than half strength. I am walking upright with the help of a walker and no hint of falling. I’m on the verge of getting my walking papers out of Kessler, more than likely this week.

So yes, I should be home for Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday.

It’s special to me for a lot of reasons.

As a child, Thanksgiving meant going to Pechter’s with my father to get the bread for dinner, then stopping off at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City to see St. Peter’s Prep face Dickinson in their annual gridiron rivalry.

As a teenager, it meant coming home from Marquette University for the first time since the summer and seeing my friends again, then having dinner with my family. It was always such a festive time for me.

So this year, it has a special meaning. I’m coming home. I’m healthy again. I hope I don’t fall.

So I am thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the great people that I deal with on a regular basis here with The Observer, namely the athletes, the coaches and the administrators.

I’m thankful for Kearny athletic director John Millar and his dutiful assistant Barbara Brooks, who are always willing to lend a helping hand, every single time I call. Whatever the request, they are there to help, whether it’s getting athletes together for an 8 a.m. photo shoot or getting a kid on the phone to be interviewed.

I’m thankful for Jim Cifelli and the Kearny girls’ cross country team, who get so excited every time I’m around to do a story or a picture. With athletes like Aislinn Sroczynski and Erika Alzamora, energetic, bubbly, wonderful young ladies, how could you go wrong? They’re a joy to write about.

I’m thankful for the entire Rusek family, the first family of West Hudson soccer. Sure, the Harrison boys lost a heartbreaker last week to Newton in the Group II state semifinals, but it was a great season for the Blue Tide.

And two weeks ago, when head coach Mike Rusek told his players about my illness, the team decided to dedicate the game to me — and they won. Where in the world does something like that happen? The Harrison soccer program is not only very good, but they’re very classy at the same time.

I’m thankful for Lyndhurst’s great litany of coaches and administrators, people like Butch Servideo, Joe Castagnetti, Kim Hykey and Tom Shoebridge, who go the extra yard as coaches and also greet me with a glad hand as a friend first and a coach second.

I’m thankful for Kearny football coach Nick Edwards, who I saw as a teenager playing baseball and have watched him grow and develop into a fine young man and a coach.

I’m thankful for the good people of Nutley, like athletic director Joe Piro, soccer coaches Mike DiPiano and Marcellino Marra and football coach Tom Basile, who are also extremely giving of their time to their athletes and then still take the time out to assist a local sportswriter in need.

I’m extremely thankful for the friendship and loyalty showed to me by Queen of Peace athletic guru Ed Abromaitis, the guy who has been through the wringer more than any other wet towel. Abro is constantly willing to assist and make sure that his athletes get the proper recognition.

I’m thankful that QP decided to honor my good friend, the late Ralph Borgess, by naming the practice field outside the school after him. I miss our Sunday morning conversations about football. The coach was the best human being I knew and I’m glad his name will live on now in posterity.

I’m thankful for the North Arlington girls’ soccer coaching staff, namely Sharon O’Brien Romer and her mother, Anne, for taking the time to send me a get well card at Kessler. That was such an amazing display of warmth that I am forever grateful for.

I’m also thankful to the hundreds of local readers who have sent texts, e-mails, messages via Facebook, you name it, wishing me good health. People like Joe Pollari of R&R Sporting Goods, who couldn’t have been more generous with his offers to help. I can’t begin to thank everyone.

I’m thankful for this newspaper, The Observer, for giving me the opportunity to continue to work through my illness. Without having The Observer to motivate me, I might have lost my mind over the last few weeks.

And I’m thankful for my family and friends, who have been so incredibly supportive through this tough time. It’s good to know you have friends when you’re down.

So yes, this is a special Thanksgiving. I’m coming home again. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

Thank you.

Harrison native Walega shines as Rutgers-Newark volleyball leader

Photo courtesy of Rutgers-Newark and Steve Smith Rutgers-Newark senior volleyball standout Paulina Walega of Harrison returns a ball in a recent match. Walega just completed her career as the Scarlet Raiders’ leader in digs. She will graduate with a double major in criminal justice and accounting.

Photo courtesy of Rutgers-Newark and Steve Smith
Rutgers-Newark senior volleyball standout Paulina Walega of Harrison returns a ball in a recent match. Walega just completed her career as the Scarlet Raiders’ leader in digs. She will graduate with a double major in criminal justice and accounting.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Being the libero on a college volleyball team is a totally thankless job. There’s not a lot of glory and attention. You’re not exactly lighting up the statistical score sheet. You basically have to work hard to make defensive plays to help your team — and not much else.

“It’s really tough,” Rutgers- Newark head women’s volleyball coach Jason Madsen said. “There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. It takes a special player.”

For the Scarlet Raiders, that special player is senior Paulina Walega, a graduate of Harrison High School.

One of the lone seniors on the Rutgers-Newark women’s volleyball roster this year, Walega was asked to become more of a leader while handling the role of libero.

“She started as a libero for us, but then we moved her to outside hitter,” Madsen said. “We were struggling offensively as a team and Paulina hit the ball well, so we moved her up. But now, we have her back at libero. She’s more comfortable there. Plus, we have so many young players on the court that we need to have someone like Paulina to lead us.”

Walega doesn’t mind handling the responsibility.

“It’s really tough, because everyone relies on you,” Walega said. “I can’t let the team down and I accept that.”

As for being the overlooked libero?

“Everyone can get offensive numbers, but defense saves the games,” Walega said. “I’ve become used to it. It’s really not nerve wracking anymore.”

Walega knew this season that she was going to have to be a leader.

“Being one of the only seniors and with all the young girls coming in, I knew I had to step up,” Walega said. “I actually like it. I like the responsibility and I like the role. On the court, I have to be the one to make sure that everyone doesn’t get nervous. I basically have to be like the coach on the floor. I have to make sure that no one gets down and everyone stays focused.”

According to Madsen, Walega takes that role one step further.

“She has to be the one who has the ‘team first’ mentality,” Madsen said. “It’s so important to have a strong libero, because if you do, you have a chance to make the plays and put the whole offense in motion. She definitely does that. She’s also in position to develop the younger players, like she’s the coach out there on the floor. She’s taken the role and accepted the role of being the leader.”

Walega led the Scarlet Raiders in digs with 290 and had 14 service aces.

“That’s what we were looking for,” Madsen said. “We needed someone to take charge. We’re so happy to have Paulina, because through her efforts, everyone now looks at her as the leader, both on and off the court. The libero is a thankless position. Everyone goes to a volleyball match, looking to see the high fliers and hard hitters. The libero is not noticed unless you don’t do your job. It’s all about defense. Having the libero like Paulina is a big help for us.”

Madsen also loves Walega’s personality.

“She has a great attitude and she’s a lot of fun to be around,” Madsen said. “If she’s playing well in the beginning and gets everyone going, it’s all good for us.”

Walega has always liked to be the one to get others going.

“I try to be as supportive as possible,” Walega said. “I can’t play if I feel a negative vibe. So I have to keep the positive attitude.”

Walega is a student/athlete in the truest sense. She has a double major in criminal justice and accounting and will eventually graduate with more than 150 accumulated credits.

“It’s really not that hard,” Walega said. “It’s all a matter of how I spend my time. I guess I just tend to spend it wisely.”

It is a unique double major for sure.

“Everyone says that,” Walega said. “They all ask what I’m going to do with those two majors. I just kind of wanted to do both and I want to do something with both, maybe insurance fraud or white collar crime.”

There’s only one downside to Walega being a senior.

“I just wish she had more time to work with our young players,” Madsen said. “She’s doing well and has such a great attitude. I was so happy to have a player like Paulina in our program.”

“Volleyball and school work is basically all the same,” Walega said. “As long as you have the same mentality, then it’s fine. Having a good attitude is all you need to have. I always want to have the same mentality that you need to succeed.”

Sure looks Walega has her life after volleyball all in place.

Harrison captures NJSIAA North 2, Group II state title with 4-0 win over Leonia

Photo courtesy Jim Hague LEFT: Senior Jose Neto scored his 26th goal of the season in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia that gave the Blue Tide the NJSIAA North 2, Group II title. RIGHT: Senior Leonardo Trujillo was a dominant force in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia last week to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship.

Photo courtesy Jim Hague
LEFT: Senior Jose Neto scored his 26th goal of the season in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia that gave the Blue Tide the NJSIAA North 2, Group II title. RIGHT: Senior Leonardo Trujillo was a dominant force in Harrison’s 4-0 win over Leonia last week to capture the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state championship.

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Before his team faced Leonia for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championship Friday afternoon, Harrison head boys’ soccer coach Mike Rusek had a little bit of apprehension.

After all, the Blue Tide was going to have to face Leonia minus the team’s best player, senior defender and do-everything Modou Sowe, as well as starting forward Ali Lachgar.

Plus, the game would mark the third time this season that the Blue Tide had faced Leonia, a regular opponent in the NJIC-Liberty Division.

“We were without two guys who have been starters all year long,” Rusek said. “Modou is the MVP of the team and Ali is a key forward. And since we saw that West Orange had just beaten Montclair in the (Group IV) state playoffs after Montclair beat them twice, I was concerned. You hear stories like that all year. They always say the third one is the toughest.”

Yeah, right.

Thanks to three goals from sophomore reserve forward Cristian Marquez, the Blue Tide steamrolled Leonia, 4-0, to capture yet another state sectional title.

The win enabled the Blue Tide (22-0-1) to move forward in pursuit of possibly yet another overall Group II state championship.

With the win, the Blue Tide was now scheduled to face Newton in the overall Group II semifinals at Ridge High School Tuesday. If the Blue Tide wins that game, then they would advance to the overall Group II title game Sunday at 10 a.m. at The College of New Jersey.

Rusek said that his senior class was extremely motivated to play the game Friday.

“I have 11 seniors on the team and seven of them are starters,” Rusek said. “I told them that this was their last game on their home field. So we wanted to make sure that the seniors went out as winners on their field.”

So that’s what the Blue Tide did, scoring early to take command of the game.

“We haven’t lost a game at home since November of 2011,” Rusek said. “We really like playing at home.”

That was an idea that wasn’t lost on the seniors.

“We have to have the philosophy that we’re going to win at home,” senior forward Leonardo Trujillo said. “We wanted to show we have a good team. I think with the team we have, we have very good players who can fill in when needed.”

None more obvious than Marquez, who made the most of his rare start.

“He had been playing in games,” said Rusek of Marquez, who had tallied eight goals and had seven assists in reserve duty this season. “We think he’s going to be our offensive center midfielder next year. He just hadn’t had the opportunity this year. I thought he would be just another midfielder for us. I certainly didn’t expect him to score three goals.”

Rusek said that Marquez just happened to be in the right place at the right time for the first two goals, but on the third and final tally, he was dead on.

Photo by Jim Hague Senior defender Modou Sowe, one of the best players in the state, missed the state sectional title game won by Harrison and his status for the rest of the season is unknown.

Photo by Jim Hague
Senior defender Modou Sowe, one of the best players in the state, missed the state sectional title game won by Harrison and his status for the rest of the season is unknown.

 

“He has the ability to get open in the box,” Rusek said. “He’s also a good finisher. The third goal, he hit a nice shot and nailed it. Let’s just say that he had opportunistic goals.”

Senior Jose Neto scored the fourth goal, the 26th of the season. Neto also had two assists on two of Marquez’s goals.

“A great program should be able to suffer obstacles and still win,” Rusek said. “We just picked up where the others left off.”

Rusek was not sure if Sowe would be able to play in the state semifinals. He’s battling a torn tendon in his toe.

“He’s a great leader on and off the field,” Rusek said. “You should have seen him during the game Friday. He was so into it and wished he was with us on the field. I hope he can play.”

Rusek has to love what he’s getting defensively.

“We’ve played four state tournament games and we’ve had four shutouts,” Rusek said. “The national record for shutouts in a season is 21 and we have 19 now.”

Which means if the Blue Tide wins the last two games and don’t allow a goal, they would tie a national record set by St. Benedict’s Prep.

“It is possible,” Rusek said. Junior Nick Araujo has been the net minder collecting those clean sheets. Twin brothers Rodrigo and Marcel Esquivel have been diligent with their play along the back line.

Trujillo said that the Blue Tide is extremely motivated to capture the state title.

“This shows that we have a good team,” Trujillo said. “We’ve now won the state sectional two years in a row. But we want more. I care so much about this team. It’s been a pleasure for me to be a part of this program. There were a lot of Harrison teams to win state championships. We want to show people we can win it, too.”

There were 14 state championships since the NJSIAA state playoffs began in the 1970s. The ingredients are certainly there for No. 15.

“We want to keep it going,” Trujillo said.

“Every coach at the beginning of the season sets goals on what they want to accomplish,” Rusek said. “But these kids believed in it. I never realized the heart of the kids. I always knew that they were talented kids, but they fought through a lot to win this. I’m really proud of them.”

Proud to be state sectional champions – once again.

Lyndhurst, Nutley find consolation in final grid game

Photo by Jim Hague Lyndhurst quarterback Jonathan Hoff had his best passing game of the season, going for 332 yards and two touchdowns in the Golden Bears’ 24-17 overtime win over Chatham. RIGHT: Nutley quarterback Mark Carnivale threw for four touchdown passes in the Maroon Raiders’ 38-34 win over Wayne Valley.

Photo by Jim Hague
Lyndhurst quarterback Jonathan Hoff had his best passing game of the season, going for 332 yards and two touchdowns in the Golden Bears’ 24-17 overtime win over Chatham. RIGHT: Nutley quarterback Mark Carnivale threw for four touchdown passes in the Maroon Raiders’ 38-34 win over Wayne Valley.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

For the teams that do not qualify for the NJSIAA football state playoffs, there is a tenth game added to the schedule. The NJSIAA calls these games “consolation,” as being a consolation prize for not making the states.

“I can’t be a fan of it,” said Nutley head football coach Tom Basile. “It’s not something you aspire for.”

However, the final game of the season gives teams a chance to end their season on a high note, to go into the offseason with a sense of purpose and hope for the future.

In the case of the Maroon Raiders of Nutley, they had a heartbreaking season.

“We were seven points away from being 7-2,” Basile said.

But instead, the Maroon Raiders headed to face Wayne Valley Friday night with a 4-5 record.

“We were disappointed that we were 4-5, but that’s where we were,” Basile said. “But we had an opportunity to have a .500 record. We had to get the kids to find a reason to get up for the game, so that was it, to come out of it with at least a .500 record. That was our motivation.”

Lyndhurst was paired with winless Chatham, with a chance to improve on the Golden Bears’ 2-7 record.

“A lot of our seniors got one more home game, so it was an emotional thing for them,” said Lyndhurst head coach Joe Castagnetti. “We made a statement that the senior class had to teach the underclassmen the idea that you have to play four quarters and have to finish.”

That was the main problem this season with the Golden Bears.

“All season, we just didn’t play four quarters,” Castagnetti said. “That is what hurt us.”

Both local teams were able to end their respective seasons on a high note.

The Maroon Raiders won a 38-34 thriller over Wayne Valley to finish their season at 5-5, at .500, just as Basile hoped they would.

The Golden Bears defeated Chatham, 24-17, in overtime, to finish their season at 3-7.

Neither team was a world beater this season, but the victories last weekend gave them a sense of achievement and accomplishment. The Maroon Raiders received a stellar offensive performance from quarterback Mark Carnevale, who threw for 180 yards and four touchdown passes.

“It was a career game for him,” Basile said of Carnevale.

Defensively, Pete Russo collected five turnovers on his own, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. It marked the second straight week that Russo had three interceptions in a game.

“I never saw anything like it,” Basile said. “He had one fumble recovery at the 1-yard line.”

For Lyndhurst, Jonathan Hoff had a great night passing, completing 24-of-41 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Eric Ferrara had six receptions for 133 yards. Joey Morreale also had six catches.

“It let them taste victory one more time,” Castagnetti said. “At the end of the game, it was almost surreal. There were tears everywhere. The kids were being happy that they won and then they realized it was over. It was a feel-good moment for our seniors. They were able to go out with a win.”

Added Castagnetti, “They played together as a group in the end and instead of playing four quarters, they had the chance to play five. From the beginning of the season, we knew we could be in games, but we just weren’t finishing. This way, we finished in true fashion.”

Basile tried to gather the emotions of the game.

“We got another game to play,” Basile said. “Our seniors got to go out on a positive note and the underclassmen can use it as a springboard for next year. The kids had a chance to perform one more time.”

Basile addressed the difference between being 4-6 and 5-5.

“It’s only one game and it doesn’t sound like much, but in reality, it’s a world of difference,” Basile said. “If you’re one game under .500, it sounds like you had a bad season. At 5-5, there’s a whole other mindset. It’s a lot easier to get the kids to the weight room off a win. This will let them think about football for a while and look forward to next season. It was definitely a positive.”

So in that respect, the NJSIAA consolation round was truly that – a consolation – to Nutley and Lyndhurst.

“It is a consolation,” Basile said. “It’s not your goal when you start the season, so you have to make the most of it.”

“It was a way for them to realize what they could have accomplished,” Castagnetti said. “I guess you can say it’s a consolation. It wasn’t just another game. In that respect, I do appreciate that 10th game. We can use this game to improve in the future.”

QP’s Jefferson provides perfect complement to standout Momnohin

Photo by Jim Hague Queen of Peace senior running back/linebacker Tajier Jefferson.

Photo by Jim Hague
Queen of Peace senior running back/linebacker Tajier Jefferson.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Staff Writer

Almost exactly a year ago, the Queen of Peace football team faced St. Anthony in the opening round of the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state playoffs. In that game, Golden Griffins’ running back/linebacker Tajier Jefferson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, an injury that required surgery.

“I tore my ACL and then everything went downhill,” Jefferson said. “They beat us, 35-12. I had the surgery in January. I had to do all the hard work in rehab to get back. The rehab went well, but I just had to get back to my teammates. I wanted to come back better than ever.”

When the time came for the preseason workouts to begin in August, the Golden Griffins had a new head coach in Robert Kearns, who was very impressed with Jefferson’s talents right away.

“He’s just a complete football player on both sides of the ball,” Kearns said. “He’s just a tremendous football player.”

All season long, Jefferson has been the fullback and main blocker for All-State candidate Kevin Momnohin, the state’s leading rusher with just a few yards shy of 2,000 yards rushing and an astounding 36 touchdowns.

Jefferson doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to Momnohin.

“It’s all a good thing,” Jefferson said. “It’s a team thing. As long as we keep winning, I don’t care. The water boy could get a shot of running the ball. Kevin and I go at it a lot. We’re good friends. It’s a good thing to have players like that on the team.”

Kearns agrees.

“I’ve said that what Kevin is to our offense, Tajier is to our defense,” Kearns said. “Kevin is the marquee guy, but Tajier isn’t far behind.”

Last Saturday, with the Golden Griffins facing St. Anthony once again in the state playoffs – the same team that defeated the Griffins a year ago in the game where Jefferson got hurt – Jefferson was geared up to make his mark.

“I had been looking forward to this game since last year,” Jefferson said. “It was a big motivation for me. I didn’t want to let the team down.”

Jefferson certainly didn’t let anyone down. He rushed for 127 yards on nine carries on offense and then registered 12 big tackles on defense, leading the Golden Griffins to a big 21-6 win over St. Anthony at Riverside County Park to advance in the state playoffs.

The Golden Griffins (6-4) now travel to face powerful St. Joseph of Hammonton Saturday in the sectional semifinals with game time at 1 p.m.

While Momnohin was his typical dominant self, scoring three more touchdowns and rushing for 170 yards, Kearns felt that Jefferson was the difference.

“Tajier won the game for us,” Kearns said. “He was a one-man gang. Without a doubt, he played a big role on offense, because they put all 11 men in the box to key on Kevin. Tajier did an outstanding job of running with the ball. He was like Jerome Bettis on one carry, taking about seven defenders for about 20 yards. He can move. He gets on you quick. He’s a great straight ahead runner.”

Jefferson knew that his role offensively was going to increase on Saturday.

“Coach Kearns told me that they were going to be keying on Kevin a lot, so I was going to get the ball,” Jefferson said. “I was definitely ready. The offensive line did a great job making sure everything was alright. Before the game, I knew that they weren’t going to key on me, so I had a chance to go up the middle and make some plays. It was definitely a blessing.”

Kearns said that Jefferson would be a premier back on practically any other team around.

“No question, he could be a featured back,” Kearns said. “Kevin and Tajier complement each other so well. It’s like having thunder and lightning in our backfield.”

Kearns feels that Jefferson’s biggest impact is on the defensive side as the team’s middle linebacker.

“He makes all the defensive calls,” Kearns said. “He has great knowledge of the game. It’s like having another coach on the field. He makes us a dangerous football team defensively.”

Jefferson likes playing defense better.

“Defense is my specialty,” Jefferson said. “I like to hit. It’s definitely Kevin on offense and me on defense. Defense wins championships. That’s what they say.”

Kearns believes that Jefferson can be a factor on the collegiate level.

“I think he could be a good outside linebacker,” Kearns said. “He has good speed and he’s not afraid to hit. He’s solid like a rock.”

Jefferson said that he’s been receiving interest from colleges like Appalachian State, Delaware, Stony Brook and Bryant.

“I just have to keep my grades up,” Jefferson said. “I’m glad I’m getting looked at.”

Right now, St. Joseph of Hammonton will get a close up view of Jefferson this weekend.

“He’s ready to mow you down,” Kearns said. “He’s not afraid of anything. He has great closing ability when making tackles. That’s tough to teach. He’s also a good blocker. He just loves the game and has a nose for the football. He has a presence of what he has to do and that’s outstanding.”

Much like he was Saturday afternoon.

“It was definitely sweet revenge,” Jefferson said.

Lyndhurst boys win NJSIAA North 2, Group I state championship

First time for Golden Bears since 2010

Photo courtesy Kane McDermott The Lyndhurst boys’ cross country team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship Saturday at Warinanco Park. From l. are Xavier Locke, Anthony Dell Aquila, Abreham Mindaye, Andre Francisco, Dylan Stanko, Stephen Covello, William Hooper, Kane McDermott and Joseph Senak.

Photo courtesy Kane McDermott
The Lyndhurst boys’ cross country team won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state championship Saturday at Warinanco Park. From l. are Xavier Locke, Anthony Dell Aquila, Abreham Mindaye, Andre Francisco, Dylan Stanko, Stephen Covello, William Hooper, Kane McDermott and Joseph Senak.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Andre Francisco and Kane McDermott remember watching the Lyndhurst High School cross country teams, led by former Observer Male Athlete of the Year Patrick Rono (currently running at the University of Arkansas), and thought then that they would love to enjoy some of the same success when they both arrived at Lyndhurst.

“Right before my eighth grade year, I noticed that they would win a lot,” Francisco said. “I thought that I would like to be a part of that winning, too. I wanted to carry on the tradition.”

“I think it’s something we always wanted,” McDermott said. “We wanted to be able to win the sectional like other Lyndhurst teams.”

However, when Francisco and McDermott entered Lyndhurst a few years ago, the idea of Lyndhurst winning another NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state sectional championship seemed a little farfetched, especially with superstar Rono long gone.

That didn’t dissuade Francisco or McDermott.

“Since freshman year, it was something we worked for,” said McDermott, now a junior and a member of the cross country team. “Having the other teams do well set a higher standard for us.”

“Especially after a guy like Pat Rono and the great legacy he left, we just fought together as a team to carry on the tradition.”

Sure enough, the Lyndhurst boys achieved the unthinkable Saturday, when they won the North 2, Group I state championship at Warinanco Park in Elizabeth.

The Golden Bears held off two-time defending sectional champ McNair Academic of Jersey City to win their first state title since the Rono-led team in 2010.

Francisco led the way for Lyndhurst, finishing second overall to Sondy Polanco of Secaucus. Francisco completed the race in 17:53.62.

William Hooper was next for the Golden Bears, finishing fourth overall in 17:57.49. McDermott was next, placing sixth overall in 18:04.19.

All three of the Golden Bears’ top finishers are juniors, meaning they all will be back next year to try to defend their title.

Lyndhurst head coach Michael Pichardo believed that his team had a great chance to win the state sectional trophy.

“I figured we were the favorites, but I didn’t want to say anything to the kids,” Pichardo said. “We knew we had a great chance. It was just a matter of them having their A game and they did that. It’s a testament to the kids. They bought in since they were freshmen and worked very hard.”

Pichardo said that the race was won by the dedication of his middle runners.

“At the first mile, I noticed that it was Polanco, then Andre, then three McNair runners,” Pichardo said. “We had to do something about that. But then, Billy (Hooper) ran by two of the McNair kids and gave us a gutsy performance.”

McDermott followed suit, with Dylan Stanco coming in 12th overall in 18:30.52, Abreham Mindaye coming in 13th in 18:44.07 and Xavier Locke placing 14th in 18:47.55.

Having those three runners come in one after another sealed the deal for the Golden Bears.

Anthony Dell Aquila rounded out the litany of Golden Bear runners, placing 21st overall in 19:13.07.

Locke and Dell Aquila are only freshmen. This is definitely a program on the rise, as Mindaye is the lone senior. Every other runner returns.

“It’s a testament to the kids, because we lost one of our top runners, Steve Covello, to mononucleosis and he’s been out almost all year,” Pichardo said. “It meant that the younger kids had to step up. The kids really run for each other. They all want to come through for their teammates. They’re as tough as nails.”

Pichardo couldn’t say enough about top runner Francisco.

“He’s terrific,” Pichardo said. “He’s been our consistent leader. He wants it the most.”

Pichardo didn’t want to compare his last champion with the current bunch – except in one area.

“They’re getting to have that edge,” Pichardo said. “That team in 2010 had a swagger about them and this team is getting there. This team wanted to get a taste of what the other teams achieved and they got it. But they’re still hungry. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s very satisfying.”

Pichardo believes that the Golden Bears have a shot this Saturday at finishing among the top three teams at the overall Group I championships at Holmdel Park, which would give them a chance to compete again one week later at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, also in Holmdel.

“We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but they’re capable of qualifying,” Pichardo said. “It was great to see them come together and get this one. I’m very excited for them. They have matured and come a long way. This was a huge first step for them. It’s a young team and we bring everyone back.”

Pichardo likes the state of the program.

“We have depth,” Pichardo said. “We have about 10 kids who could run varsity. When has that happened before? This group really pushed each other and it paid off.”

“This is amazing,” McDermott said. “We really did have high hopes coming into the season. We expected to do something good this season. This was our year. It’s tremendous that we’re all coming back next year. Hopefully, we can repeat.”

“It’s really exciting,” Francisco said. “We’ve all worked so hard together. We push each other and this is the result.”

Kearny, Harrison soccer: Moving on once again

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison defender Modou Sowe has been brilliant in the NJSIAA North 2, Group II playoffs, scoring five goals in two games, enhancing his All-State possibilities.

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison defender Modou Sowe has been brilliant in the NJSIAA North 2, Group II playoffs, scoring five goals in two games, enhancing his All-State possibilities.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

The NJSIAA state soccer playoffs have moved into the semifinal round. Most of the local teams have, unfortunately, been eliminated from contention.

Except two old reliable teams – and then one relative newcomer.

It’s only fitting that both Kearny and Harrison’s boys’ soccer teams are still fighting for the chance to be a state sectional champion. After all, the Kardinals and the Blue Tide represent the best in high school soccer. Both programs have been established as two of the very best New Jersey has to offer for a very long time.

Since the NJSIAA went to a playoff format in the mid-1970s, Harrison has won an astounding 14 state championships. Only Chatham has won more in the state. Kearny has captured nine state titles, tied for fifth most in state history.

So it’s almost expected that both teams would be contending for state honors – Harrison in Group II and Kearny in Group IV.

Both the Kardinals and the Blue Tide, the top seed in their respective brackets, won their first two respective games in the state playoffs.

The Blue Tide, top seed in North Jersey Section 2, Group II, rolled to their two wins, defeating Ridgefield Park, 6-0, in the opening round, then toppling Newark Tech, 3-0, in the second round last Friday.

The Kardinals, the top seed in North Jersey Section 1, Group IV, knocked off Roxbury in the first round, 3-0, then shook off a tough battle from Clifton, 1-0, in the second round.

The Kards were now scheduled to face fourth-seed Bergen Tech in the semifinals of the sectional at Harvey Field, while the Blue Tide were set to take on Caldwell in the semis at Harrison High, with both games going on approximately simultaneously a quarter mile apart on Schuyler Avenue.

Photo by Jim Hague Kearny midfielder Kevin Tapia was the hero in the Kardinals’ 1-0 win over Clifton, advancing the Kards to the North 1, Group IV semifinals.

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny midfielder Kevin Tapia was the hero in the Kardinals’ 1-0 win over Clifton, advancing the Kards to the North 1, Group IV semifinals.

 

Harrison head coach Mike Rusek admitted that it was only fitting that Kearny and Harrison would both be battling for state titles at this juncture of the season.

“November is always a fun time for soccer in West Hudson,” said Rusek, who was a standout player at Kearny during his high school days. “Both of our schools are traditionally focused on state tournaments. We’re both the top seeds. It’s that time of year.”

Rusek, whose team toppled Kearny, 1-0, in the semifinals of the Hudson County Tournament last month, always holds his relationship with Kearny close to him.

“I always root for Kearny in the state tournament,” Rusek said. “If we both were able to win, that would be wonderful.”

The Blue Tide, still unbeaten with a 20-0-1 record, is enjoying its best season since going undefeated in the 2002 season, posting a 24-0-1 record that year.

One of the major reasons for the Blue Tide’s success has been the play of senior forward Jose Neto, who leads the team with 25 goals.

“Jose is really clicking at the right time,” said Rusek, who hopes that the Blue Tide can capture their first state title since 2008. “He’s been the leader of the team. He’s getting better, getting more and more goals each month. He’s always around the goal and always attacking. He likes being the one who has the pressure on his shoulders. It’s great to have a player like that on your side.”

The other standout player for the Blue Tide has been senior defender Modou Sowe, who is one of the most diverse players in the state and clearly an All-State candidate. Incredibly, Sowe has tallied 19 goals, including five already in the state tournament.

“I really believe that he will go further than any player I’ve ever coached,” Rusek said of Sowe. “We’ve had a lot of very good players, but he’s going to succeed at a higher level.”

The other key to the Blue Tide’s success has been their defense, which has posted an incredible 17 shutouts this year in 21 games.

“Modou takes pride in that as well,” Rusek said.

Kearny head coach Bill Galka was not pleased with the way his team was playing prior to the state tournament. The Kards lost to rival Harrison, then lost an independent regular season game to Morristown.

“I talked to the team a little bit after that game and told them that they wouldn’t have a chance to move forward if they kept playing that way,” Galka said. “I don’t know if they took that game (Morristown) lightly, but they took the talk we had to heart and have played well.”

The Kardinals had to face some adversity, when standout goalkeeper Sebastian Ferriera went down with a shoulder injury, so backup Michael Barros has been outstanding, collecting two shutouts in the state tourney.

“He made some key saves,” Galka said. “He was the backup, but trained hard all year and now it’s his turn.”

The Kards have been getting scoring from different people, not just leading scorer Andres Pesantez. For example, Kevin Tapia was the hero against Clifton, scoring the game’s lone goal.

“We’re getting scoring from different areas,” Galka said. “That has helped.”

Both teams have not surrendered a goal in the state playoffs. That means one thing: It’s very hard to lose if you don’t allow the opponent to score.

Galka also agrees that it’s good for local soccer when both Kearny and Harrison are doing well in the state tourney.

“I think most people want to see both teams make a run,” Galka said. “We’re finally playing strong and tough. We’re starting to play much better at the right time.”

The third local team still alive in the state tournament is Nutley’s girls’ team, which advanced to the semifinals of the North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket.

It’s the furthest that Nutley has ever advanced in the state playoffs.

Coach Mike DiPiano’s team moved on with a 2-1 win over Millburn last week, keyed by Victoria Healy’s clutch late goal.

The Maroon Raiders were slated to face West Morris in the semifinals, also earning a home game.

It means a great amount of excitement in November for the local soccer teams, two old favorites and one invigorating newcomer.

QP football: Home game in state playoffs

Photo by Jim Hague Queen of Peace senior running back Kevin Momnohin has been one of the most explosive players in New Jersey, gaining close to 2,000 yards on the ground and scoring 33 touchdowns

Photo by Jim Hague
Queen of Peace senior running back Kevin Momnohin has been one of the most explosive players in New Jersey, gaining close to 2,000 yards on the ground and scoring 33 touchdowns

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When Robert Kearns decided to return to his childhood roots and take over the Queen of Peace football team once again, he really didn’t know what to expect.

“I saw the schedule and I thought we could be competitive,” Kearns said. “I thought we would be there until the end and be in every game. But in terms of wins, I didn’t know.”

But Kearns’ thoughts quickly changed after he saw the Golden Griffins start preseason training.

“When we started workouts, I saw the size of our offensive line and I was encouraged by that,” Kearns said. “I knew that we had a good quarterback in Anthony Villano. I knew that I had the best young coaching staff around.”

Kearns was also blessed to have his long-time friend and colleague Ed Abromaitis become a member of the coaching staff. Abromaitis was already the school’s athletic director.

“We’ve known each other for 40 years,” Kearns said of Abromaitis. “We coached together on and off for 20 years. It’s worked out well here.” Abromaitis is in charge of the team’s defensive backs.

“We have a good mix of the young and the old,” Kearns said. “It couldn’t have worked out better.”

It also helped that Kearns inherited a running back like Kevin Momnohin.

“He’s like a coach’s gift,” Kearns said of Momnohin, who has re-written the school’s record books this season.

Momnohin has collected a school record 1,915 yards rushing with an astounding 33 touchdowns. He had 275 yards and five touchdowns in a recent win over neighboring rival North Arlington and added 144 yards and two scores last Friday night in a loss to Cresskill.

“He’s just phenomenal,” Kearns said. “Every week, I keep saying that I can’t ask for more and he keeps giving me more. His work habits are incredible. He wants to succeed in everything he does, whether it’s in football, in track or in the weight room. I saw right away that this kid was a winner.”

Momnohin has guided the Golden Griffins to a 5-4 record, which was good enough to secure the No. 4 seed in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state playoffs. They will play at home at the new Riverside County Park facility Friday night at 7 p.m. against a very familiar face.

When the Golden Griffins face St. Anthony of Jersey City in the opening round of the state playoffs, they will see former QP head coach Ed Stinson on the sidelines with the Friars. Stinson spent two seasons as the head coach of the Griffins (2008 and 2009).

But the Golden Griffins will have a home game in the states, playing on a new facility, under the lights. No one could have imagined that was possible.

“Without a doubt, I couldn’t have written a better script any better than what has happened,” Kearns said.

A year ago, the Griffins struggled keeping players on the field. One after another, the players fell victim to injury.

But Kearns wanted to make sure that there was no repeat with the injury bug.

“We took things a little differently,” Kearns said. “We spent a lot of time with conditioning and weight room training. We know how to rest their legs. Everyone is healthy, thank God, and we’re keep going on the right track.”

Of course Momnohin is the engine who makes the Griffins go. He’s having an All-State caliber season.

“Everyone knows he’s going to get the ball,” Kearns said. “And when he gets the ball, good things are going to happen. It’s magic. He’s just a very special kid. What he’s done has been unbelievable. No matter what point of the game, he gets this look on his face and he’s just gone. He has that extra step that most people don’t have. And when he uses it, he’s gone. It’s been like Bill Belichick inheriting Tom Brady. I give the ball to 5 (Momnohin’s jersey number) and 5 goes.”

Photos by Jim Hague QP senior quarterback Anthony Villano is a deadly threat as a passer or a runner

Photos by Jim Hague
QP senior quarterback Anthony Villano is a deadly threat as a passer or a runner

 

But the team is not all Momnohin.

“Tajier Jefferson has been an absolute moose,” Kearns said. “He’s playing well on both sides. The offensive line has been tremendous. Anthony Villano is great, running and throwing. Everyone has really jelled together nicely. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

So the Griffins get a home game in the states. It’s a perfect setting for what should be a great game.

“Everyone is buzzing about getting a home playoff game,” Kearns said. “It’s great for the school. There should be such a great crowd there. Everyone is excited about it.”

And one thing should be duly noted, according to Kearns.

“Queen of Peace is back,” Kearns said. “Some people said that the place is dying and the end is near. Well, we’re back and we’re going to be here for a very long time.”