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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.”

Kearny firefighter Boyle takes on NYC Marathon

Photo by Jim Hague Kearny firefighter Doug Boyle trains near his home in Kearny, preparing for the New York City Marathon.

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny firefighter Doug Boyle trains near his home in Kearny, preparing for the New York City Marathon.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Doug Boyle has never been one to back down from a challenge. When he was a teenager, the lifelong Kearny resident was asked by a family member what he wanted to do with his life.

“I said I wanted to join the Marine Corps,” Boyle said.

The response raised some eyebrows with his family members.

“But all the men in my family were in the military,” Boyle said. “My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, all were in the military. It was absolutely what I wanted to do.”

So when the former Kearny High football defensive end graduated from Kearny in 1989, Boyle enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Boyle was deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. In 1991, he was part of the platoon that enacted Operation Eastern Exit, which enabled the members of the United States Embassy in Somalia to evacuate safely.

When Boyle left the Marine Corps as a corporal in 1993, he needed another challenge in his life. So he took the Civil Service exam to become a Kearny firefighter. In 1996, Boyle joined the Kearny Fire Department and has been a member ever since.

“I was very happy when the Kearny Fire Department called,” Boyle said. “It was always something that I wanted to do.”

A few years ago, Boyle needed yet another challenge. He became a road runner.

“I always ran in the Marine Corps, but I stopped running when I joined the fire department,” Boyle said. “One day, I woke up and I just didn’t feel good. I had put on some weight and was tired. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I just didn’t feel right.”

Boyle’s doctor suggested some change of lifestyle, which included more exercise. Boyle then decided to find his running shoes and head back to the roads.

“I bought a joggling stroller so I could run with my daughter Jillian when she was little,” Boyle said. “People would always see me running with the stroller. Soon after, I took running more seriously.”

In 2009, Boyle decided he was ready for his biggest challenge. He wanted to run a marathon.

“Of course, I had to make my first one the Marine Corps Marathon (Washington, D.C.),” Boyle said. “My sister Michelle ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in 2000, so she knew what she was doing. She gave me a training schedule to get ready.”

Boyle had to build up his endurance before taking on the streets of the nation’s capital.

“It was a 16 week schedule,” Boyle said. “I had to work my way up.” So the leisurely strolls became longer, to five miles, then 10, then 15. “I had to be able to run five miles a day, three days a week,” Boyle said. “That’s how I started. After it got longer, it got tougher. The first time I did 13 miles, I thought that this was nuts. I took my shoes off, hit my bed and collapsed. I wondered, ‘How can I do this?’ It’s never easy. But I wasn’t going to quit. I never quit. I’m figured I was going to finish it or die trying.”

Boyle had never competed in a shorter race, like the traditional five or 10 kilometer road races that are popular throughout the area. He was determined to train for a marathon or bust.

“I told everyone that I was going for a marathon,” Boyle said. “I was going to finish or be humiliated for the rest of my life. Everyone thought I was crazy.”

True to his nature, Boyle finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 2009 in four hours and 20 minutes.

“It was right near the Iwo Jima Memorial,” Boyle said. “I was exhausted. I couldn’t walk right for a week. Right there and then, I thought that was it. I thought, `Who would want to do this again?’”

But Boyle did it again. He competed in the New Jersey Marathon in 2010 in Long Branch and finished in 4:05. He was getting better at it.

Boyle also ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 2010 and 2011. He hasn’t competed in a marathon since.

Four years ago, Boyle applied to run in the New York City Marathon, the biggest marathon in the world, with nearly 50,000 runners.

“It’s a lottery to get in,” Boyle said. “I didn’t think I’d get in.”

This year, Boyle received news that he was accepted for the NYC Marathon.

“It’s always been my goal to run New York,” Boyle said. “If you’re a runner, who doesn’t want to run New York? When you hear about marathons, the best one is New York. I’m very excited about it.”

Boyle said that it’s especially important this year, because the New York City Marathon was cancelled last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“I think that makes it even more exciting,” Boyle said. “The race starts in Staten Island and the island was destroyed by the storm. I think this shows everyone that we’re back and getting better.”

Boyle remembers that he was on duty with the Kearny Fire Department for 40 hours straight last year due to the storm.

Boyle said that he’s in the best shape of his life now. He changed his training regimen.

“I used to run five days a week, but then I’d always have an ache or a pain that stopped me,” Boyle said. “Now, I run three days and the others, I cross train, either on a bike or something. I’m pretty much pain free now.”

Boyle said that he’s been doing 20 miles in training. He said he was physically prepared for the jaunt through the five boroughs.

“But who is really ever ready to run 26.2 miles?” Boyle asked. “But I’m going to finish. No question about that. Unless I break a leg, then I can’t. But at this point, it’s more mental than anything. I know I can finish, even with a year off. I have that determination on my side.”

Boyle finished the race Sunday in 4:30.29. He did it. He completed the NYC Marathon in his first attempt.

Boyle said that he will continue to train for future marathons. He’s already registered for the 2014 Marine Corps Marathon next October.

“I tell people that I’m running marathons and they say, ‘Why?’” Boyle said. “Most people don’t even like to drive 26.2 miles. I do it to say that I can. Obviously, fitness is important with what I do for a living.”

Boyle said that he has good support from his colleagues.

“They always support me,” Boyle said. “Jed Schappert (a fellow Kearny firefighter) ran the Marine Corps Marathon with me in 2009. So that’s good to have.”

It’s also good to know that Boyle has tackled yet another challenge in his life.

Kearny girls’ cross country team captures county crown

LEFT: The Kearny girls’ cross country team captured the Hudson County Championship last week, the program’s fi rst since 2009. RIGHT: Senior Erika Alzamora, shown here at the NJSIAA state sectionals a year ago, fi nished second at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association meet last week.

LEFT: The Kearny girls’ cross country team captured the Hudson County Championship last week, the program’s first since 2009. RIGHT: Senior Erika Alzamora, shown here at the NJSIAA state sectionals a year ago, fi nished second at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association meet last week.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Before the girls’ high school cross country season started, veteran Kearny head coach Jim Cifelli set some standards for his team to reach.

One of those was the championship of the Hudson County Track Coaches Association.

“This was definitely a goal,” Cifelli said. “Last year, at the county meet, they really felt like they could win and afterwards, they felt like they gave it away. So they wanted to make amends.”

Mission accomplished.

The Kardinals recently dominated the HCTCA meet, taking home the team title for the first time since 2009. “In the beginning of the year, we set those goals and we were confident that we should be there,” Cifelli said after his team outdistanced runner-up Secaucus by 14 points. “That being said, we were not running well early on and that was pretty obvious.”

But there was a turning point in the Kardinals’ season.

The team raised funds to go to the Walt Disney World Cross Country Classic in Orlando in mid-October.

“The funny thing, they had good workouts since Day One and right prior to Disney, but were really not racing well,” Cifelli said. “They were lackluster racing and you could see it. Maybe they were looking forward to Disney.”

Of the 33 teams from throughout the country in the race in Orlando, the Kardinals placed ninth.

The Kardinals then came home and competed in the Lancer Invitational in Livingston, where Cifelli saw more signs of life.

“Once we got to the counties, we sort of loosened up,” Cifelli said.

Senior Erika Alzamora led the way for the Kardinals, finishing second to overall winner Brittany Gibson of McNair Academic. Alzamora crossed the line in a solid 19:18.10.

Teammate Aislinn Sroczynski was right behind her close friend, finishing third overall in 19:44.70.

“They didn’t run well, but they competed well,” Cifelli said. “I thought Erika and Aislinn could have run better.”

Mariah Davila was 10th overall in 20:59.50.

“She was 16th at one point and ended up 10th, so she finished well,” Cifelli said.

Wendy Carranza was trailing the pack as well, but she made up a lot of places in the final strides to finish 16th overall in 21:24.30.

“We were actually losing the meet at one point,” Cifelli said. “But in the last quarter mile, Wendy and Mariah came through and ran PR (personal records).”

Noemi Campos, who had been battling a back injury, fought through the pain and finished 21st overall.

“Noemi really rallied late in the race and she also posted a PR,” Cifelli said.

Campos crossed the finish line in 21:53.20.

“It was a good race for Noemi,” Cifelli said.

Melissa Castaneda (51st overall) and Jessica Cavalier (52nd) rounded out the Kearny contingent.

“It was pretty impressive, considering we were without two girls, Anna Czykier and Julia Coppola, who have stress fractures,” Cifelli said. “The girls were very excited. It was good to see them come together. They got a chance to show what they got. It’s a good group of kids.”

Sroczynski already received her first college offer. The University of Tampa offered Sroczynski a scholarship. Alzamora is receiving some lukewarm attention.

The Kardinals now move on to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state sectionals at Garret Mountain. Randolph and Ridgewood are the two favorites, but Cifelli believes that third place at the sectionals is achievable.

“We’ve competed well with the other teams contending,” Cifelli said.

Third place would mean that the entire team would advance to next week’s Group championships at Holmdel Park in Holmdel.

“That’s another goal,” Cifelli said.

So far, the goals have been attained, like winning the first county title in four years.

Call Harrison’s Villanueva an assist machine

Photo by Jim Hague Harrison senior center midfielder Kevin Villanueva

Photo by Jim Hague
Harrison senior center midfielder Kevin Villanueva

 

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Most soccer players dream of being the goal scorer, the one who blasts the ball into the back of the net, then can do a leap of joy into the arms of a waiting teammate.

But Kevin Villanueva isn’t like most players.

The Harrison senior center midfielder is much happier making the pass that leads to the goals for his Blue Tide teammates. Villanueva would rather collect an assist than score the goal, a complete rarity.

“It’s just the way that I was taught to play,” Villanueva said. “I want my friends to be the ones who get the ball. It’s just the way I grew up. My favorite team is Barcelona and that’s the way they play. They’re all unselfish and that’s the way I want to play.”

It’s an approach that pleases Harrison head coach Mike Rusek.

“I think that just speaks a lot about the type of kid he is,” Rusek said of Villanueva. “I feel that he would have the ability to score 20 goals, but that’s not his nature. We’re lucky to have a player like Kevin. We have a lot of unselfish players and that’s the reason why we’ve had such great success this season. But Kevin is the leader.”

The Blue Tide, already the winner of the Hudson County Tournament championship, currently owns an impressive unbeaten 19-0-1 record as they begin the next step, the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II state tournament this week.

And there’s no question that Villanueva is a major reason why Harrison is ranked among the top 20 in the state (No. 11 overall) and the top seed in the sectional. The Blue Tide will play host to Ridgefield Park on Wednesday in the first round.

“He is our captain,” Rusek said. “I think our team gets a lot of its traits from its leader. It’s a very unselfish team and that comes from him. Kevin just wants to win and he wants the team to succeed. I don’t think we could do what we have done without Kevin and the way he plays.”

Villanueva has scored six goals this season, but has amassed an incredible 24 assists. He’s just three assists shy of the school record set by All-State superstar Cristhian Acuna when Acuna was the state Player of the Year in 2004.

In the last week alone, Villanueva registered eight assists in three games, all Harrison victories.

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

Villanueva loves his role with the team, collecting assist after assist as the Blue Tide collects win after win.

“I don’t really pay attention to who gets the assists,” Villanueva said. “I just play for the team. As long as we get the job done and win, nothing else matters. I believe I’m an unselfish player and I don’t mind, because I know I couldn’t get the job done without the rest of the team.”

Villanueva said that his teammates are very grateful that he supplies great setups for goals.

“They always come up to me and say that it was half my goal,” Villanueva said. “I don’t see it that way. I know it’s their goal. Whoever finishes gets the goal.”

But Rusek realizes the importance of Villanueva and the unique approach he provides.

“Really, in all the players I’ve ever coached, I don’t I’ve ever had a player like Kevin,” Rusek said. “He’s very unique in that he concentrates on his passing more than any other aspect on the field.”

Rusek believes that Villanueva can make any kind of pass _ as has been proven in the last few weeks.

For example, it was Villanueva who provided the assists on both of Jose Neto’s goals in the 2-0 victory over Memorial in the county championship game two weeks ago.

“Kevin put the ball low so that Jose could make the play on both goals,” Rusek said.

But Villanueva also precisely puts the ball high at times so that multi-talented center back Modou Sowe can get his head on the pass in order to score off set pieces.

“Kevin is special because he can make the adjustments on his passing to the type of team we have,” Rusek said. “I think it’s because he’s so intelligent as a soccer player. It’s remarkable what he’s been able to do.”

It’s also no fluke, considering that Villanueva contributed 25 assists last season.

“We really didn’t know what we were getting from him,” Rusek said. “So last year he was a surprise. Now, as a senior, we could only hope he could match what he did, but he’s going to do better.”

Plus, the team is better overall because of his solid play.

“It’s amazing,” Villanueva said. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. I love being able to help my team. It’s really fun to celebrate their goals.”

Villanueva would love to be able to continue his soccer career on the next level.

“I have my fingers crossed that someone will notice me,” said Villanueva, who considers himself a “decent student.”

Rusek believes Villanueva would be a good college player.

“He has to find a coach and a program that fits his style,” Rusek said. “He wants to become a teacher, so he needs to find the right school.”

For now, Villanueva will look to lead the Blue Tide to another title.

“He’s the type of kid who you don’t realize how important he is until he’s gone,” Rusek said. “He’s going to be missed. He’s very special.”

And if the Blue Tide scores a goal, chances are that it is Villanueva who made the perfect pass.

“I think the whole team goes insane every time we score a goal,” Villanueva said. “We celebrate every goal with such emotion. If I had something to do with it, then it’s fine with me. It’s all fun for me.”

Belleville enjoying historic girls’ volleyball season

Photo courtesy John Spina The Belleville girls’ volleyball team owns an impressive 19-2 record, a vast improvement from just two seasons ago, when they won just three times. Back row, from l., are Jenna Lombardi, Fiorelys Perez, Breana Nieves, Kayla Sica, Shatia Silas, Chloe Mecka, Abigail Ocaya and Gabriella Tabago. Front row, from l., are Dashel Arizmendi, Andrea Nugent, Kirsten De La Cruz, Kristan Lombardi, Barbara Jacangelo and Ariana Douglass.

Photo courtesy John Spina
The Belleville girls’ volleyball team owns an impressive 19-2 record, a vast improvement from just two seasons ago, when they won just three times. Back row, from l., are Jenna Lombardi, Fiorelys Perez, Breana Nieves, Kayla Sica, Shatia Silas, Chloe Mecka, Abigail Ocaya and Gabriella Tabago. Front row, from l., are Dashel Arizmendi, Andrea Nugent, Kirsten De La Cruz, Kristan Lombardi, Barbara Jacangelo and Ariana Douglass.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When John Spina took over coaching the girls’ volleyball team at his high school alma mater Belleville three years ago, the program was in disarray.

“They were 0-17 the year before I took over,” Spina said. “I just tried to implement competition.”

The first year with Spina as a head coach, the Buccaneers showed a slight improvement.

“We won three games,” Spina said. “It wasn’t really frustrating, because I knew what I wanted to do.”

A year ago, the Buccaneers were headed down the wrong road, losing nine of their first 11 matches.

“But then the momentum turned in our favor,” Spina said. “We were improving. We started to beat the teams that were beating us.”

The Bucs ended the season with a 14-12 record. It meant that volleyball could be a viable sport in Belleville.

“We got girls who wanted to play volleyball all the time,” Spina said. “We had six girls playing club volleyball and another three who played during the winter. We created an atmosphere where the expectations were higher.”

So when the 2013 season began, Spina truly believed that his program was poised to take the next step.

“We didn’t want to shy away from competition,” Spina said. “We wanted to create some pressure to perform. They hated it at first, but once we started to breed competition in practice, it gave us the edge that we needed. We were going to be less likely to crumble and fold. We had a lot of good players who could play a lot of positions, a lot of depth.”

Spina said that the Buccaneers prepared for the coming season with a lot of diligence in the offseason.

“It’s a credit to the girls, who put in the hard work during the summer,” Spina said. “If they didn’t, they would have been just an average volleyball team. The hard work is paying off.”

Obviously.

The Buccaneers are currently enjoying a sensational season, one of the best in the school’s history. They have a 19-2 record, suffering losses only to Nutley in the early portion of the season and Livingston in the third round of the Essex County Tournament, and they currently are on the threshold of capturing the Super Essex Conference- Colonial Division crown.

Spina believes that the loss to Nutley early on was a turning point.

“It was the second game of the season,” said Spina, who also coaches the Belleville boys’ volleyball team in the spring. “We lost to Nutley last year, 25-1. I never lost a game like that before. We were competitive this time. I emphasized to them that they just had to chalk that one game up, because they totally wiped us off the floor last year and now we showed so much improvement. We bounced back and won 10 straight.”

The Buccaneers defeated Weequahic and Newark Academy in the Essex County Tournament before falling to perennial power Livingston in the quarterfinals.

There’s one trait about the Buccaneers that stands out. Spina does not just use seven players like most teams. There are at least 12 players who get regular time in the Belleville rotation.

“This is a team built to work this way,” Spina said. “Instead of just having seven, we have the ability to take players out and keep their legs fresh. They’re used to the fact that they’re all sharing their positions. It’s just another weapon we have. It’s the most depth we’ve ever had.”

Leading the way is senior middle hitter Shatia Silas. The 6-foot-2 Silas is an imposing presence at the net and has collected 28 blocks, 121 kills and 31 service aces.

“Anything that the other team does close to the net, she can put it back,” Spina said. “If they make a mistake, she’s going to block it. Having that much of a presence changes things. We’re able to build our game around her.”

Junior Abigail Ocaya is the other Buccaneer middle hitter. Ocaya has 57 kills and 14 blocks, including eight kills and three blocks in a recent win over Hackensack.

“This is only her second year of volleyball, but she’s already a good presence at the net,” Spina said. “She’s getting much better as the season progresses. We’re getting what we need from her.”

Sophomore Breana Nieves is a first-year member of the varsity at outside hitter.

“She’s very versatile in every aspect of the game,” Spina said of Nieves. “She can serve, pass and hit. She can also play defense.”

Nieves fills out a stat sheet. She has 58 kills, 40 digs, 83 service points and 20 service aces.

Senior Kayla Sica is the Buccaneers’ jack-of-all-trades.

“We use her in a lot of crazy roles,” Spina said. “Last year, she started at middle hitter, but we moved her to opposite hitter, where she can hit better. She also didn’t complain about being moved around. She’ll go anywhere she’s needed.”

Sica has 49 kills, 11 blocks, 34 digs, 59 service points and 11 service aces.

One setter is senior Jenna Lombardi, who transferred to Belleville last year, but she failed to join the volleyball team.

“I was concerned how she would fit in,” Spina said of Lombardi, who was the pitcher on the Buccaneers’ softball team last spring. “But she leads the team in service points.”

Lombardi has 149 service points, 56 of which have gone for aces, to go along with her 152 assists.

Another setter is sophomore Andrea Nguyen, another newcomer to the Buccaneers’ varsity. Nguyen has 87 assists.

“She’s progressing well,” Spina said of Nguyen. “I like the way the ball comes off her hands. She brings a lot of athleticism to the team.”

The team’s libero is junior Barbara Jacangelo, who has been “awesome,” according to Spina. Jacangelo has 183 digs, 119 service points and 45 aces.

In part of the Bucs’ rotation is senior Chloe Mecka, who spends most of her time at opposite hitter.

“She’s second on the team in blocks and makes a lot of noise at the net,” Spina said. “She does everything for us. She has great hands and she’s very versatile. She’s one of the best athletes on the team.”

Junior Gabriella Tabago is the team’s defensive specialist. She has contributed 72 digs, 28 kills and 38 service points. Sophomore Kristan Lombardi, Jenna’s younger sister, has contributed 101 digs from the back row.

Notice the statistical contributions of the reserves. That is uncommon for most volleyball teams.

Senior Fiorelys Perez is one of the team’s captains and she is the team’s service specialist, collecting 48 service points, 21 for aces. Senior Dashel Arizmendi is another key server and opposite hitter. Kirsten De La Cruz is another defensive specialist.

Needless to say, it’s been a fun season for the Buccaneers.

“I used to talk to my old wrestling coach Joe Nisivoccia (who recently retired as the Belleville wrestling coach) and he would tell me when you have a great season, you should enjoy it while you have it,” Spina said. “I’m happy for the kids, because they can walk around the halls of the school with pride. They have a feeling that they’re special and they are. They should be proud. They’re champions.”

Kearny turns hoop reins over to local guy McDonnell

Photo by Jim Hague Kearny resident Bob McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer, has been named as the new head boys’ basketball coach at Kearny High School.

Photo by Jim Hague
Kearny resident Bob McDonnell, a retired Kearny police officer, has been named as the new head boys’ basketball coach at Kearny High School.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

In his heart of hearts, Bob McDonnell never wanted to be anywhere else than coaching the kids of Kearny.

After all, being a Kearny guy is what Mc- Donnell has been for the last 30 years. He’s lived here, raised his family here. He served as a police officer in Kearny for 15 years, as a patrolman, as a DARE officer.

And McDonnell was a youth coach, volunteering his time coaching wrestling and basketball in Kearny. He spent seven years coaching the freshman, junior varsity and assistant on the varsity basketball teams at Kearny High.

For nine years, Mc- Donnell was involved with the Kearny AAU basketball program and served on the town’s basketball committee, organizing and supervising clinics and leagues for the youngsters of the town.

But four years ago, after failing to secure the head coaching position at Kearny, a slot he coveted so much, McDonnell moved outside the town. McDonnell took a job as an assistant coach at Berkeley College in Newark.

“I actually became more of a student of the game,” McDonnell said. “I learned more about fundamentals, learned about the quickness of the game, the difference between high school and college. I saw different coaching styles and it really opened my eyes up.”

McDonnell kept himself busy as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Berkeley.

“I saw over 600 high school games over the last few years,” McDonnell said. “So I know what’s going on, especially in Hudson County.”

So when Bill Schoener left Kearny after one season to take a new position at Saddle River Day School, it left the position open that McDonnell always coveted.

Last week, the Board of Education officially appointed McDonnell as the new head coach at Kearny High.

“I’m extremely excited,” McDonnell said. “I think the program can work. I’m willing to work to make it better.”

It’s not going to be an easy task. Ever since Kearny has joined the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League five years ago, the Kardinals have not been at all competitive. Last season, the Kardinals posted a 5-22 record. It’s an uphill climb toward respectability for McDonnell and the program.

But McDonnell is not a complete newcomer to the returning players. The kids know him from the different youth teams – AAU, PAL – that McDonnell has coached, recognize him from the camps and clinics. He’s not an outsider.

“I think it helps me greatly,” McDonnell said. “I have a good rapport with the kids. A lot of them went to my camps or played for me. Most of the juniors and sophomores were on my PAL team when we won the state championship when they were in seventh and eighth grade. I believe that’s a great start. They know my coaching style and know what to expect. They know what to expect when it comes to discipline, both on and off the court. They know what’s expected of them athletically.”

McDonnell was asked if he has changed over the last four years that he was away from high school basketball and coaching on the collegiate level.

“What’s different about it is that I know that there’s more of a teaching aspect on the high school level,” McDonnell said. “On the college level, the players already have their own style of play. On the high school level, you’re teaching the finer points of basketball.”

McDonnell has modest goals with the program.

“We definitely want to be more competitive,” McDonnell said. “We definitely have enough talent to be competitive. The talents just need to be brought to fruition. We definitely have a lot of kids in town that want to play.”

One thing is for sure: Mc- Donnell is going nowhere. He’s in this for the long haul.

“Coaching will be my full-time attention,” said McDonnell, who retired from the police department three years ago. “It’s a point of fact. This is my last coaching stint. I have a good relationship with the teachers and administrators. I also have a good relationship with the business leaders in the town who will be willing to help the program. By being here in Kearny for so long and working with the kids, I have a lot invested in this.”

McDonnell wants to see if he can implement a traveling team comprised of seventh and eighth graders and perhaps add more teams at the AAU level.

“Without a doubt, we can be competitive,” McDonnell said. “I have seen numerous games in the area and I know what’s coming back. We can be competitive. I’m out for the kids first. I have their best interests in mind.”

So what does it mean for McDonnell to finally get the chance to have the one coaching job he always wanted?

“I think I have a lot of perseverance,” McDonnell said. “I think by me waiting a long time is giving me the incentive to want to do this and want to run the program the right way. It’s going to take some time, maybe a few years, but I have that time.”

And Kearny has a true Kearny guy as its new head boys’ basketball coach.

NA’s Seca becomes instant player of impact

Photo by Jim Hague North Arlington sophomore center midfielder Joanna Seca

Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington sophomore center midfielder Joanna Seca

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Joanna Seca has been playing soccer in North Arlington since she was five years old.

It didn’t take long for others to notice that Seca was a player of immense talents, as she was scooped up from the regular North Arlington Recreation program to play at higher levels, like Kearny Thistle and even more impressively, the Players Development Academy (PDA) of Zarepath, N.J., an organization for strictly the elite players in the state.

When it came time for Seca to enter North Arlington High School, she elected to continue to play for PDA, which meant she could not play for the Vikings.

“I was a little upset and disappointed,” Seca said. “Some of my friends on the team asked me not to play PDA, but it was too much to try to do both. I was looking forward to playing at North Arlington, but it was my first year with PDA, so I didn’t want to upset that.”

North Arlington veteran head girls’ soccer coach Sharon O’Brien Romer knew of Seca, because of some afterschool counseling programs. But O’Brien Romer didn’t know how good of a player Seca truly was.

“I knew that she was a nice girl who played club soccer for a long time,” O’Brien Romer said.

O’Brien Romer didn’t make any attempt to convince Seca to play for the Vikings. It’s not something the coach feels comfortable doing. If Seca wanted to play varsity, she could sign up and come to practice like everyone else.

And that is what exactly took place last spring.

“I just signed up to play,” Seca said. “I knew a lot of the girls on the team from playing recreation and travel soccer.”

During summer workouts, O’Brien Romer saw almost immediately that Seca would make a positive impact on her team.

“I knew right away that she could handle the challenge,” O’Brien Romer said. “I saw that there was a lot of potential there.”

O’Brien Romer inserted the sophomore at center midfield. There wasn’t exactly instant success.

“I think it took her a little bit of time to get accustomed to everything,” O’Brien Romer said. “She had a lot of good shots and was making good plays, but she just wasn’t scoring.”

“I definitely had to step up my game,” Seca said. “Playing in high school was much more aggressive than I thought it would be.”

After a few games, Seca became more comfortable with her new surroundings.

“Something just clicked,” Seca said. “I knew I had to do better and I did.”

O’Brien Romer said that Seca just took over and lived up to expectations.

“She’s been contributing a lot, both on and off the field,” O’Brien Romer said. “She has a great personality and work ethic. She’s a natural leader. She has all the intangibles you need. She also has great skills and can control the ball well. She handles the game gracefully. She plays with such grace and ease.”

Seca said that she changed her approach from the beginning of the season.

“I’m holding the ball more,” Seca said. “I’m shooting it when I get inside the 18 (yard line). That has definitely helped. I didn’t do that earlier in the year.”

The Vikings didn’t do a lot of winning early on either.

“We needed to get to a certain level of play to get into the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I) state playoffs,” O’Brien Romer said. “They had to prove that they belonged.”

Two weeks ago, the Vikings suddenly became a vastly improved team, with Seca leading the way. They went on a streak where they won four out of five games, including three wins over NJIC opponents (Weehawken, Becton/ Wallington and St. Mary’s of Rutherford) that the Vikings lost to earlier in the season.

One of the main reasons for the hot streak is the immense contributions from Seca, who has scored seven goals and added eight assists in those games.

Last week, Seca had three goals and two assists against Becton/Wallington, one goal and two assists against Weehawken and one goal and four assists against St. Mary’s.

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

O’Brien Romer is more than pleased with Seca’s performance.

“She’s made the other girls on the team around her much better,” O’Brien Romer said. “Not only is she a good player, but she makes the others better. She could develop into something really special. I’ve had a lot of girls come through the program over the years and Joanna could become one of the truly special ones.” O’Brien Romer put Seca in the same class as former standout Katie Mallack, who went on to play rugby at Sacred Heart University.

“She has a chance to be better, one of our very best,” O’Brien Romer said of Seca. “She has natural leadership qualities. She keeps her cool when other teams notice her and guard her. She’s a team player who is always looking to help the team win. She’s really been a great addition to our program.”

Seca likes the way she’s playing now.

“I thought I could play the same way I played in PDA, which is focused on passing,” Seca said. “I realized that it wasn’t working in high school. I can pass it, give it to someone else to shoot, but also get the chance to get it back. It’s working better. We’re winning. I definitely feel better about it.”

As for playing for North Arlington?

“I like it,” Seca said. “I like representing my school and getting to know the girls. It’s good to know that I have a good relationship with them on and off the field. It’s been really exciting. I’ve gained a lot of confidence so far and I hope it just continues.”

So does everyone involved with the North Arlington girls’ soccer program.

Harrison wins Hudson County boys’ soccer tourney

First time since 2009 for Blue Tide, who defeated Kearny in semifinals

Photo by Ronald Shields The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after defeating Memorial, 2-0, to capture the Hudson County Tournament championship, the school’s first since the initial HCT in 2009.

Photo by Ronald Shields
The Harrison High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after defeating Memorial, 2-0, to capture the Hudson County Tournament championship, the school’s first since the initial HCT in 2009.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Jose Neto hasn’t had the easiest of high school soccer careers. The Harrison High School senior had to endure knee surgery after a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the extensive rehabilitation that comes with the operation. Neto also had to deal with his share of ankle injuries over the years.

“The rehab was tough, but I kept going,” Neto said. “I knew that anything could happen.”

As it turned out, Neto returned to form for his fourth and final season with the Blue Tide.

“He never really had a full season to show us what he could do,” said veteran Harrison head coach Mike Rusek. “We’ve been real fortunate this year that he hasn’t missed a game. He was determined to have a great senior year and really stepped up his play.”

Neto is definitely saving his best for last.

With standout defender and team leading scorer Modou Sowe on the sidelines with a knee injury, Neto took it upon himself to lead the Blue Tide in the Hudson County Tournament championship game Sunday against Memorial at Caven Point Cochrane Field in Jersey City.

Neto scored two first half goals and that was enough to propel the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory and to capture the Hudson County championship for the first time since the initial tourney in 2009.

What made the Blue Tide’s championship more rewarding is that they also knocked off local archrival Kearny, 1-0, in the semifinals last Wednesday.

Sowe had a spectacular defensive game against Kearny.

“He must have cleared away 25 balls with headers,” Rusek said. “He was so solid.”

However, doctors determined that the ball hitting Sowe’s head so many times caused a slight concussion.

“He said he was feeling dizzy a little after the game, so doctors said that he’s out for a week,” Rusek said. “I was a little nervous playing without him.”

There was also the emotional letdown effect after having such a huge win against the arch nemesis.

“I wondered whether we got up too high for the semifinal,” Rusek said. “After all, it was an emotional game, a rivalry game. I started to think that maybe we played our best against Kearny and didn’t have anything left for the championship game.”

Rusek said that there was a sense of emptiness to go that long without a county title.

“Sure, we had been disappointed,” said Rusek, whose team lost in the second round last year to Union City and in the semifinals to St. Peter’s Prep in 2011. “But I think last year was a surprise group. No one expected us to go far. This year, we had a good group of juniors and seniors coming back. After we beat Kearny, I knew we had a good shot.”

Neto recalled both goals.

“The first one came off a corner kick by Kevin (Villanueva) and I was able to head it in,” Neto said. “The second one, Kevin hit a through ball to me. I got it, shot it and it hit the post and went in. It was crazy. I was lucky enough to score both goals.”

Neto also worried that there would be an emotional letdown after beating the Kardinals.

“Beating Kearny was such a big accomplishment for us,” Neto said. “It’s our biggest rival. The coaches told us that we had to treat this one as a bigger game than Kearny, because this was for the championship. Winning this was one of my dreams. I love being around my teammates so much that I wanted this for them.

Added Neto, “It’s overwhelming for me to score two goals in the county championship game. It’s a really big accomplishment. For me to be the one to come through is amazing.”

“I’m so happy for Jose,” Rusek said. “He really stepped up for us and led us. Kevin now has 18 assists this season. You never hear of anyone getting 20 assists in a season, but Kevin’s right there.”

Photo courtesty Ronald Shields Jose Neto, who scored the game’s lone goals, dribbles past two Memorial defenders. Neto carried the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, ending a drought in the Hudson County Tournament.

Photo courtesy Ronald Shields
Jose Neto, who scored the game’s lone goals, dribbles past two Memorial defenders. Neto carried the Blue Tide to a 2-0 victory, ending a drought in the Hudson County Tournament.

 

Nick Araujo stepped up as well. The junior goalkeeper turned aside nine shots to record his 12th shutout of the season in 15 games.

“He’s coming into his own,” Rusek said. “We knew Nick was going to be good for us. We didn’t expect this good. He’s surpassed our expectations.”

The Blue Tide continues to exceed everyone’s ideas, because they are now 14-0-1 on the season.

“This team has definitely surpassed our expectations as well,” Rusek said. “We have everything we could have asked for and more. It’s pretty remarkable. I hope it carries into November for us. We just beat the No. 1 seed (Kearny) and No. 2 seed (Memorial) in Group IV and we’re Group II. I think we’ll be in pretty good shape for the state tournament.”

As long as Neto keeps finding the net and as long as Sowe gets healthy, the Blue Tide should keep rolling along.

Nutley girls’ soccer: League champs

Photo courtesy Mike DiPiano The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team celebrates after clinching the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week, the first-ever in school history.

Photo courtesy Mike DiPiano
The Nutley High School girls’ soccer team celebrates after clinching the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week, the first-ever in school history.

 

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Nutley High School girls’ soccer coach Mike DiPiano knew that the competition would get much tougher in the second half of the current season.

“I knew that teams would be packing it in on us defensively,” DiPiano said. “We knew that people would try to knock us around. It was all about us staying composed.”

It also meant that the Maroon Raiders had to play tougher defensively.

“I think we’re still playing the same way that we did early in the season,” DiPiano said. “It’s just that our defense has gotten better. We’re playing a little better soccer. We knew that this could happen when you’re playing teams a second time. We still have the dynamic scoring up front, but our defense is much stronger.”

The Maroon Raiders are getting solid play from defensive whiz Brittany Currie along the back line.

“She’s doing a great job of leading and keeping everyone composed,” DiPiano said.

The other defenders are all seniors, so that experience helps. Grace Montgomery, Katherine Calitsos and Alyson Zeiher are all steady defenders, giving the Maroon Raiders a solid line of defense.

Junior Rachel Nichols has been a godsend of late. Nichols stepped into the starting role at goalkeeper when starter Meghan Montgomery dislocated her thumb. Montgomery will be out of action for another two weeks, so Nichols has to lead the way – and she has, collecting two shutouts among her three victories in goal.

“Rachel has done a fantastic job in goal,” DiPiano said. “The girls in front of her are making her job much easier, but she’s been steady.”

The result: A historic moment in Nutley girls’ soccer history. For the first time ever, the Nutley girls’ soccer program has captured a league championship. They clinched the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division championship last week.

“It’s a really big deal,” said DiPiano, who inherited the Nutley program after the Maroon Raiders posted a 4-17 record just three seasons ago. “It’s the first time in the school’s history that the girls’ team won a league championship. It means a lot to the girls.”

The Maroon Raiders were ranked 19th in the state last week, before falling to Livingston in the Essex County Tournament semifinals, falling to 11-1-1 overall.

“I am surprised how fast we turned things around,” DiPiano said. “It’s a testament to the girls. They bought into the change in philosophy and they trusted me. They stepped up the improvement process with their hard work.”

DiPiano still has three forward players on track to be among the state’s leading scorers.

Freshman Zoe Stack has scored 20 goals. Victoria Kealy has added 18 goals and Natalie Melillo has knocked in 12 goals and added an outstanding 18 assists.

They’re on pace to score 25 goals each this season.

“That would be an amazing accomplishment,” DiPiano said.

DiPiano just enjoys the camaraderie on the entire team.

“It’s a great group, a special group,” DiPiano said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime group. They do everything together. They have breakfast together. They went apple and pumpkin picking together. They go to watch the boys’ games together.”

DiPiano knew that he had a close-knit contingent last week, when the entire team went to watch a recreation under-9 girls’ soccer game.

“They were all there together, cheering on the little ones,” DiPiano said. “That shows how special they really are.”

The Maroon Raiders still have four regular season games remaining. Their standing in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III bracket is still at stake.

“We want to get as many home games in Nutley for the state tournament as possible,” said DiPiano. “We want to play in Nutley as long as we can. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

For now, the Maroon Raiders achieved a slice of history. A league championship can now be added to the banner on the wall of the school’s gymnasium.

“The only thing there is a county championship in 1991,” DiPiano said. “So it will be nice to add the league championship to the banner.”

And it’s a title that no one can ever take away. It will remain there through the ages for posterity, the first-ever league champion in girls’ soccer. Quite an achievement indeed.