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Category: Sports

New coach Jelcic leads Lyndhurst boys’ soccer through tough times

LyndSoccer_web

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

Dennis Jelcic did a fantastic job building the Lyndhurst-Paramus hockey cooperative program, so he believed he could weave some magic in turning the boys’ soccer around at Lyndhurst High School.

It certainly made Jelcic one of the most unique coaches in New Jersey. There aren’t many – if any others at all – that coach soccer in the fall and hockey in the winter. It’s definitely a different mix.

“I don’t know of any others,” Jelcic said.

Jelcic was eager to take on the challenge.

“I’m very excited,” Jelcic said before the start of the season last month. “We have a lot of young players who are doing whatever I ask of them. They’re staying late after practice.”

Jelcic also brought on veteran Ken Van Rye as an assistant coach.

“He’s been nothing short of excellent as an assistant,” Jelcic said. “I’m excited to have a young team that will be competitive for many years to come.”

Jelcic is also optimistic about the plethora of young players participating in soccer in town.

“We have a lot of young talented players coming up,” Jelcic said. “The program is looking up.”

So there’s no way that Jelcic will look at the Golden Bears’ current 3-7 record as a setback.

The Golden Bears showed some promise when they defeated Bergen Charter, 7-4, two weeks ago. But they have lost four of their last five games.

Jelcic has a lot of faith in his goalkeepers, namely senior Thomas Hooper and sophomore Milton Rua.

Hooper is a former cross country runner who decided to switch to play soccer this season. He has collected 41 saves in seven games. Rua has made 19 saves in three games.

“Hooper has been like a fish in water,” Jelcic said. “But he’s tall and athletic and learning as he goes along. Milton is a quality keeper.”

The Golden Bears will continue to use both net minders.

Junior Ryan Brown has returned to Lyndhrrst after a year away. He’s been an anchor to the Golden Bears’ defense and has collected a team-high six assists.

Junior Motana Thungason is a returning starter and is a member of the defender contingent.

Senior Edgar Bravo is another veteran member of the Lyndhurst defensive unit.

Junior Giovanni Arcentales is the key playmaker in the Golden Bears’ midfield. Arcentales scored 10 goals last year and has tallied three goals and added three assists thus far this season. He’s a dangerous offensive threat for the Golden Bears.

Sophomore Nick Pacheco and sophomore Doug DaSilva are also promising members in the midfield, along with returning senior starter Christian Formoso. DaSilva has collected three assists this season.

Sophomore Raymond Valenzuela is the Golden Bears’ leading goal scorer thus far, tallying four goals this season.

Notice the names and the respective years in school. The Golden Bears have a host of sophomores. One after another, they’re all young.

“We’re going through a lot of growing pains,” Jelcic said. “We’re a little inexperienced and rough to start.”

The forward line is also young, with Marildo Mera and Luis Yolinares as sophomores and Adrian Baronowski and Vincent DiTonto as freshmen.

So the Golden Bears’ record might be under .500, but the promise is there for a bright future.

“We’re going to be fine,” Jelcic said. “We definitely have a lot of kids who are interested in playing and who want to play. They practice hard all the time and play hard.”

That attitude will certainly lead to better results in the future. For now, the Golden Bears have to build on the wins they enjoyed against Bergen Charter, Ridgefield and local rival Queen of Peace.

“I like the direction of the program,” Jelcic said. “We’re moving forward.”

North Arlington’s Seca enjoys goal scoring outburst

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

North Arlington’s Joanna Seca will be away from the Vikings’ girls’ soccer team for the next two weeks. She’s off to play at a higher level, joining the Portugal national 17-and-under team play.

“It’s a huge step and a golden opportunity for me,” Seca said. “Hopefully, it will lead to bigger and better things.”

It’s going to be a big loss for the Vikings, who are enjoying a fine 8-3 record thus far. But first-year head coach Dan Farinola realizes that he has to allow Seca to get the chance to play at such a prestigious level.

“It’s unbelievable,” Farinola said. “I can’t even imagine what that must be like for her. We have to change our game plan a little without her and in these five games, we’re certainly going to miss her.”

That’s an understatement, because Seca was in the middle of an incredible season.

In just 11 games, Seca had scored 20 goals and added 18 assists. In the week prior to her departure across the Atlantic, Seca scored nine goals and added six assists.

Seca had an incredible five goals and two assists against Weehawken, added two goals and two assists against Immaculate Conception of Lodi and had two goals and two assists against St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

That’s some offensive explosion and certainly a tremendous sendoff.

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

“It feels awesome,” Seca said. “It shows that my hard work pays off. I had the right hungry mentality to get those five goals. I’m very happy with the way the season is going.”

Seca said that she had a lot of confidence coming into her senior year because she played with the top club soccer team in New Jersey, namely the Player Development Association (PDA).

“It helped with my skills and helped me improve tremendously,” Seca said. “It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. I was really excited coming into the season, but I didn’t know what to expect. We lost a lot of seniors from last year. I knew I had to step up a little.”

Seca said that she has been holding control of the ball more and finding teammates like Taylor Barth, who has also scored 20 goals thus far.

“I bring the ball up myself,” Seca said. “That takes a little getting used to. I used to pass the ball a lot, but now, I look to take the ball and shoot as well. After a while, that gets natural.”

Seca said that she will miss playing with her team for the next two weeks.

“It’s tough, because we’ve all been working so hard,” Seca said. “I hate to leave. I want to be able to help the team. It stinks that this is taking place now and I can’t be a part of what my team is doing. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime dream.”

Farinola is happy having inherited a talented player like Seca.

“She’s really been like having another coach on the field,” Farinola said. “She has helped me tremendously. It’s a nice gift to have as a new coach. She’s fabulous. She worked so hard in the offseason.”

Farinola said that Seca’s work ethic in the offseason served as an inspiration for the other members of the Vikings.

“She got her fitness level up,” Farinola said. “She worked on her speed. She worked on her feet with the ball. She moves the ball effortlessly. And she can use both feet and can shoot from 30 yards out with either foot. It’s hard to see anyone else with that ability and it’s really cool to watch.”

Farinola heard some good things about Seca when he took the head coaching position.

“But she’s better than I thought,” Farinola said. “I knew she was going to be the center midfielder, but she’s outdone my expectations.”

Farinola said that the attention Seca commands has made her other players, like Barth, better performers.

“Other teams can’t help but to give all the attention to her, so she’s helped the others,” Farinola said. “It wasn’t her team at the beginning of the year, but it is now. And now she knows it’s her team.”

Remarkably, Seca has not received any offers from colleges, despite her soccer prowess and her academic status. Seca is currently ranked second in the North Arlington Class of 2015.

“I’m sure she’ll get some attention soon,” Farinola said. “I think she’s a Division 1 player. If she played any sport, she’d be an All-League player. That’s how good of an athlete she is. She’s a special girl. Someone has to give her a look now.”

“That’s the ultimate dream,” Seca said. “My goal has always been to play at the college level.”

Seca was asked if her 5-foot- 2 stature hurt her chances of getting recognized by colleges.

“No, not at all,” Seca said. “I don’t really think about that. Whenever I hear that I’m too short, I use that for motivation.”

Needless to say, Seca is sitting atop the world. She’s scored five goals in a game, knocked in 20 goals in 11 games and is now headed to Portugal to play for that nation’s top U-17 program. Life is good for Joanna Seca.

“It’s really been a fun year,” Seca said.

Former goalie Najarro leads Kearny over Harrison

Eduardo Najarro_web

Scores crucial goal in 3-1 win at Red Bull Arena

By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

When the high school soccer season began in early August, Edgar Najarro was simply a backup goalkeeper to Kearny High School’s celebrated net minder Sebastian Ferreira, one of the best goalies in the entire state.

Najarro knew that there wasn’t going to be much playing time in net with the Kardinals.

“I was a goalie on the club level this summer, but I’ve always been a field player,” Najarro explained. “I was the leading goal scorer on the JV (junior varsity) team the last two years. I just wanted to get a chance to play.”

Two weeks ago, Najarro got a chance to play on the forward line as a reserve.

Last week, Najarro scored a huge goal in overtime, giving the Kardinals a tough 3-2 victory over North Bergen. Last Saturday, the Kardinals faced neighboring rival Harrison at Red Bull Arena, with approximately 5,000 avid soccer fans in attendance.

Najarro was hoping to make his mark.

“I woke up in the morning and realized that I had to go out there and prove myself, if I got a chance to play,” Najarro said.

Najarro did just that. Inserted into the game after halftime, Najarro got himself in perfect position to score a gigantic goal.

“I just put him in the game,” Kearny head coach Bill Galka said. “And he made a beautiful chip to the goal from 20 yards out. It was as beautiful of a goal as you’re going to see.”

On his first touch of the game, Najarro got his foot on the ball and fired it.

“Matthew Neto had the ball, but he just ran out of space, so I got it,” Najarro said. “I hit it well and it went to the top left corner of the net.”

Najarro’s goal in the 53rd minute snapped a 1-1 tie and propelled Kearny to a 3-1 victory in the showdown of the area’s top two clubs.

It was the first time that the two teams had played in Red Bull Arena in three years. Kearny won that game as well by a 2-1 score.

Galka was not pleased with his team at halftime with the game deadlocked.

“I came off a little upset at half,” Galka said. “We were a little outnumbered in the midfield and they had too much possession of the ball. So we talked about it and made some adjustments. We were able to defend better and counter their play. We were able to get more control of the ball. We picked our game up in the second half.”

Ferreira was outstanding in net for the Kards. He made nine saves, several of which were sprawling stops.

Photo by Jim Hague Daniel Vicente scored Kearny’s first goal two minutes into the showdown with Harrison, won by Kearny at Red Bull Arena, 3-1.

Photo by Jim Hague
Daniel Vicente scored Kearny’s first goal two minutes into the showdown with
Harrison, won by Kearny at Red Bull Arena, 3-1.

 

“He was big all game for us, stopping shots from a long distance,” Galka said. “He made some tremendous saves to keep us in it. He showed good poise, because it was a back and forth game.”

Daniel Vicente, who returned to the Kearny program this season, got the Kardinals going with an early goal in just the second minute of the game. It looked like Kearny was ready to run the Blue Tide right out of Red Bull Arena.

But Christian Restrepo’s header in the 20th minute tied the game for Harrison, which is the way the game stayed through halftime.

It was soon to be Najarro time.

“It meant a lot to me that my mom (Diane) and dad (Rolando) were there to see it,” Najarro said. “I also have the game on tape, too. I’ve scored some big goals, like the North Bergen one, but not quite as big as this one. Especially on that stage, in front of all those people.” And against the dreaded rival, who had a tough week. Everyone in Harrison was concerned about the health and well being of former Harrison All-State great Modou Sowe, who collapsed during a Ramapo College game last week and was rushed to a hospital. Sowe was later released after it was learned he was suffering from the ill effects of a concussion, but there was a ton of concern for Sowe, even at the game Saturday.

Najarro made sure that it was going to be a frightful Saturday afternoon for the Blue Tide.

“It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” Najarro said. “From the minute we got off the bus to the minute we went back home, everything was professional. I’m absolutely going to remember it for the rest of my life.”

Arturo Sanchez capped the scoring with a goal with about seven minutes left to play, giving Kearny the twogoal advantage.

“Anytime you play at Red Bull Arena, it’s a thrill,” Galka said. “I know both teams like playing there and the towns like it as well. There was great fan support for both teams. The faculty, administration, students, local fans, you name it, they were there. It was a great atmosphere and a great experience for the kids.”

Galka’s team now owns a state ranking (No. 16 overall) and an undefeated mark at 6-0-2, with ties against St. Peter’s Prep and Union.

“We’re playing well,” Galka said. “We just got some players back. (Marcelo) Matta just got back from a concussion. He was big for us in the second half. He only had two days of practice. Alexi Velasquez was also injured and couldn’t practice all week, but he played well. I think we’re finding our way.”

Just like the former goalie found the net – and created a memory of a lifetime.

The Kearny girls completed the sweep of the doubleheader, handling the Harrison girls in easy fashion, 6-0.

Call Krychkowski the impromptu NJCU goalie

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

When the New Jersey City University men’s soccer team prepared to begin the 2014 season, the Gothic Knights were missing a very important ingredient. They needed a goalkeeper.

NJCU head men’s soccer coach Patrick Snyder thought he had two recruits entering the program this fall.

“We had some options, but one kid just didn’t fit our profile,” Snyder said. “Both of our goalkeepers from last year didn’t return – one chose to leave and the other didn’t have the academics down.”

So Snyder made one phone call – to former Observer Male Athlete of the Year Tyler Krychkowski.

The celebrated North Arlington High School graduate, the recipient of The Observer’s top award in 2012, had been a midfielder with the Gothic Knights for the first two years of his college career.

Krychkowski was always asked to be the emergency fill-in at goalie – even though he never played the position at all.

“I told Tyler that he had to be ready to help if we needed him,” Snyder said. “I really thought we had at least one goalie, but that didn’t work out. I know I should have asked Tyler if he wanted to be the goalie, but I guess I basically told him.

” The response was typical Tyler.

“I just told him I would do it for the team,” Krychkowski said. “There was no one else around to step up and take over. I wanted to have a good season, so I decided to do it.”

With no formal goaltending training at all, Krychkowski donned the gloves, got a new uniform to wear and headed toward manning the goal.

“I worked hard with our goalie coach Mike Coughlin,” Krychkowski said. “I guess my athleticism helped me. I worked really hard with Mike to get ready to play.”

Krychkowski’s natural athletic ability carried him. After all, Krychkowski was a three-sport standout at North Arlington – a goal-scoring machine in soccer, a 1,000-point scorer in basketball and a track and field expert. It was a no-brainer the year he was selected as Observer Male Athlete of the Year.

“I didn’t have any doubts in myself handling it, because I worked so hard at it,” Krychkowski said. “The key was not making too many mistakes.”

“He really took to it,” Snyder said. “We just didn’t know if he could handle it, but after training a little, Tyler got better and better and felt pretty comfortable with it. He’s just a selfless kid. I just hoped that his athleticism and dedication would carry him.”

Snyder likes what Krychkowski has done in the new position.

“He’s a roaming goalie,” Snyder said. “He likes to come outside of the box and go after the ball. He can jump well and knows how to use his body.”

The results have been staggering. Krychkowski, thrust into a new position that he never played before, has become one of the best net minders in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

Krychkowski collected a shutout in one of his first games as a goalie. In 11 games, he’s surrendered just 17 goals, a 1.44 goals against average, and he’s collected 68 saves.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed, as Krychkowski was named the NJAC Player of the Week, the league’s defensive player of the week and was honored by the ECAC as its Defensive Player of the Week. Krychkowski was also honored as the Disney Soccer/ NCAA Division III National Player of the Week.

Let’s go one step even further. In the Sept. 15 editions of Sports Illustrated, Krychkowski was featured as one of the prestigious magazine’s Faces in the Crowd.

Yes, the impromptu goalie getting national recognition. Not a bad gig at all.

“I was really nervous before the first game, but I got the shutout,” Krychkowski said. “Then, I realized I can be pretty good at this. I am definitely surprised by it. The defense has played very well in front of me. If the guys in front of me are playing hard, we have a good chance of not allowing a goal.” Krychkowski said that his experience as a field player has helped him as a collegiate soccer goalkeeper.

“Just knowing where the forward is playing has helped me in goal,” Krychkowski said. “I just reversed it all. I learned all the key words I have to say to my teammates. I’m still learning that. The athleticism I have definitely helps. I know where I have to be. I just know the game and I’ve learned a lot from my goalie coach. I know now I can be a goalie. The confidence level is high playing goalie. I just do what I have to do.”

Snyder said that he knew he had a winner when he told Tyler to change positions.

“Our whole team philosophy has changed in that we’re trying to defend more,” Snyder said. “Everyone on the team wants to defend. They knew what was good for our program. As soon as Mike and I made the decision to go with Tyler, we knew. Tyler just threw a pair of gloves on, had a few practices and was ready to go.”

Krychkowski had some tough moments in the last week, facing NJAC powers Montclair State and defending league champion Rutgers- Camden. But he’s still there, still in goal, still doing what’s best for the Gothic Knights.

“It is a little different,” Krychkowski said. “The attention and everything has started to settle down. I’m getting used to being in goal. I like where I am right now. It could have been far worse.”

But Krychkowski isn’t about to make playing goalkeeper a permanent slot.

“It’s definitely a one-year deal,” Krychkowski said. “Scoring goals, there’s no better feeling in the world. Okay, I won’t do it this year, but I will be back trying to score goals next year, no doubt.”

“I think it’s a testament to Tyler and the whole team,” Snyder said. “We are now going after good kids, good students. I know it can work.”

As long as Snyder finds diamonds in the rough like Tyler Krychkowski, a former goal scorer supreme now working his tail off to prevent goals from scoring. Such is life as a soccer player.

Nutley’s Merkle carries on rich family grid tradition

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

Craig Merkle didn’t have to go far to find inspiration in becoming a standout high school football player. The Nutley High School junior could have easily found that motivation in his own living room.

That’s because Craig Merkle has two older brothers who paved the way for him to become a Maroon Raider.

First, Chris Merkle went from being a fine two-way performer with the Maroon Raiders to a great career at Montclair State and eventually became a professional football player, toiling for a few years in the Arena Football League.

Then, middle brother Kevin came along and played for the Maroon Raiders before heading off to Union College two years ago.

“They definitely motivated me a lot,” Craig Merkle said. “I used to always go to Chris’ games when he played and I always followed Kevin. I always wanted to be a good football player like my older brothers. It was definitely a little tough, knowing all that Chris did and how far he got. They were some huge shoes to fill.”

Merkle definitely showed that he was ready to become the next in line last year, when he went from being a sophomore reserve to a prime-time performer.

“We tried to break him in slowly last year, because he was a sophomore,” Nutley head coach Tom Basile said. “But he ended up scoring 11 touchdowns every way imaginable, running, catching, kick returns, defense. He ended up leading the team in tackles. We worked him in as the season went on. He became a starter and wasn’t coming out.”

In fact, the youngest Merkle brother was so impressive that he earned a remarkable distinction as a sophomore.

“We gave him the Most Outstanding Player award at the season end banquet,” Basile said. “It’s virtually unheard of to give it to a sophomore, but that was the way to show everyone how talented he is. Obviously, he was our best player. He’s a good all-around football player.”

Merkle said that he was shocked that he earned the MVP trophy.

“I was pretty surprised,” Merkle said. “I didn’t think I had a chance to get it. It was a great accomplishment.”

But Merkle knew that he couldn’t rest on the laurels he gained a year ago.

“I knew I had to keep working hard,” Merkle said. “I knew that I would be the main running back this year, so that made me work a little harder. I loved the idea that I would be getting the ball more.”

In Basile’s eyes, it was a nobrainer.

“I did expect Craig to be the workhorse back this year, somewhere in the 20-to-25 times per game,” Basile said. “We do have other weapons, but Craig is our go-to guy. He’s the one who can get the tough extra yard, but he’s also the one who could break one. He’s that kind of kid.”

Merkle proved to be that kind of player – and then some – Saturday afternoon against West Orange. He carried the ball 29 times for 192 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 13 and 51 yards. Merkle also gathered an interception and returned it 77 yards for another touchdown, leading the Maroon Raiders to a 49-27 victory, a win that pushed Nutley’s record to an impressive 3-0 in the early stages of the 2014 season.

For his efforts, Merkle has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Merkle is the first honoree for the 2014-2015 scholastic sports season. The weekly feature will culminate with the presentation of the Observer Male and Female Athletes of the Year sometime in June and July of 2015.

Basile said that Craig Merkle is a combination of his older two brothers.

“Craig is the best of both worlds,” Basile said. “He has the personality of Kevin and the intensity and physical level that Chris had. Kevin was more cerebral, but Craig has the best of both brothers. It’s a great football family. They’re all supportive of the program.”

Basile said that he loves Craig’s work ethic.

“He’s the one who is working all year round,” Basile said. “He never misses a day in the weight room and he also runs track in the spring, so he’s training all the time.”

Basile said that Merkle is also a great student and product of the Nutley community.

“He’s a solid B-plus student,” Basile said. “He does his job in the classroom. He’s also involved in the community. He’s the total package. He’s just a well rounded guy.”

Basile also feels that Merkle is a college football prospect.

“I think he’s still going to grow some,” said Basile of Merkle, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 220 pounds. “He’s basically still a baby. I obviously think he can play in college. He has the size and the strength to do it.”

But Merkle is just a junior. He has another year of high school football to worry about.

But Merkle has that goal in his sights already.

“That’s what I hope for every day,” Merkle said. “I want to play in college. That’s my dream.”

Merkle said that he doesn’t have a preference for which way he would want to play, either running back or linebacker.

“As a kid, I always played defense and it was my favorite,” Merkle said. “But when I got to high school, I liked running the ball, so now, I really don’t know. I like to play both.”

The Maroon Raiders will now get challenged in their schedule, facing Montclair this week.

“It’s a reality check now,” Basile said. “Our schedule gets solid now. We’re going to see what Nutley is all about.”

“We’re going good right now,” Merkle said. “We have a tough schedule coming up, beginning with Montclair, so we have to go in with a good mind. But right now, this feels great. Everyone is looking good.”

Just not as good as the Maroon Raiders’ best player, the one from the strong football family.

Lucas tells all in poignant book ‘Under Pressure’

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Harrison’s favorite son writes about battles with painkillers

 

By Jim Hague

 Observer Sports Writer 

Ray Lucas makes no bones about where he’s from. He’s Harrison through and through.

If you have a lengthy conversation with the former Jets quarterback and current television and radio football analyst, Lucas is bound to mention his hometown a dozen times.

“Growing up in Harrison, playing sports was everything,” said Lucas, who just released a poignant and powerful memoir, entitled “Under Pressure: How Playing Football Almost Cost Me Everything and Why I’d Do It Again.”

“The way Harrison sports were, if you weren’t tough, you didn’t survive,” Lucas said. “Sports were the equalizer in Harrison. Harrison football was the right of passage. You got the right to wear your jersey to school on Friday before the game. That was huge. I got to do it as a freshman. That’s what shaped me.”

Lucas, who went from Harrison High School to Rutgers to the NFL and stints with the Jets, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, now works as an announcer on the Rutgers radio network and on SNY covering the Jets, was talked into writing a book about his life by his agent, Mark Lepsetter.

“He said it like three years ago that I should write a book,” said Lucas, who worked on the book with author David Seigerman. “After everything I went through and where I came from, I started thinking about it. I talked to my wife (Cecy) and we decided to do it.”

The book, released recently by Triumph Books and found in bookstores and on line at Amazon.com, enables Lucas to tell his remarkable tale from growing up in Harrison, coming from a controversial family background to eventually tackling the demons of severe drug addiction to prescription pain medications.

Lucas was born in 1972 out of wedlock. His father was serving in Vietnam when his mother became pregnant by another man, an African-American.

“Out popped the chocolate boy wonder,” Lucas writes in his book.

When Tom Lucas came home from Vietnam, he married Ray’s mother and raised Ray as his own.

“My Dad is the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Lucas said. “I still try to be half the man he is.”

As Lucas got older, he heard the talk from people in town.

“I was in the sixth or seventh grade and I used to get beat up in school,” Lucas said. “I was the only black kid around. I didn’t know any better. He was my father and my mother was my mother. My sister was my sister and she’s white. I never had the guts to ask my Dad what happened. The man’s not my biological father, but he’s my Dad. He told me that he loved my mother too much to leave her be alone.”

Lucas became an All-State football and basketball player at Harrison High, eventually earning a scholarship to Rutgers to play football. At Rutgers, under head coach Doug Graber, Lucas flourished as the quarterback in one of the best offenses in the East. It led to a tryout with the New England Patriots, earning the respect of head coach Bill Parcells, who wrote the forward to Lucas’ book. Parcells took a major liking to Lucas and gave him a spot on the Patriots’ roster, even if it meant Lucas had to play special teams.

It opened the door for Lucas’ six-year career in the NFL, but it also led to more serious problems. Lucas had neck and back injuries that led to a host of surgeries and forced him to take any and all kinds of painkillers.

“I have a four-inch plate and eight screws in my neck,” Lucas said. “I’ve had three neck surgeries, two back surgeries, three right shoulder surgeries and one right elbow surgery. I’ve also had four right knee and three left knee surgeries.”

Four years ago, Lucas’ addiction to painkillers became totally out of control.

“I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore,” Lucas said. “I didn’t know who I was. I was taking 1,400 pills a month. Oxycontin, Percocet, you name it, I’d take it. I made sure I always had enough. I was down to 168 pounds. I was sick, really sick.”

Lucas was getting assistance from P.A.S.T. Retired Athletes Medical Resource Group after he had another surgery.

“They asked me to tell my story in Dallas,” Lucas said. “I didn’t want anyone to know my story and to know I was an addict. I made the decision to go to Dallas and when I got there, I knew I wasn’t alone.”

Lucas went straight to a drug rehabilitation facility in West Palm Beach for six weeks.

“I don’t even remember the first three days,” Lucas said. “I took 30 pills right off the plane and another 20 before I got to the place. The first day, I went through withdrawal and I wouldn’t ask that on anyone. It was extremely difficult.”

Lucas said that he went to rehab very defensive.

“I couldn’t trust anyone,” Lucas said. “I was extremely guarded. I didn’t have any of my friends around. I didn’t see my wife for four weeks. Once she came to see me and opened up to me, it was so good to see her. It was like seeing her for the very first time.”

Lucas’ courage in writing the book is incredible. It can’t be easy being a public figure, especially a beloved sports hero in his hometown, where he lives once again with his wife and three daughters, and opening up his private life in print.

“I feel blessed,” Lucas said. “When you screw something up so badly, you want to know how to fix it. I wanted to be a great father, a great husband, a great son, a great friend. I worked my tail off to get better. Now, everything tastes better and looks better. I love what I’m able to do now.”

Lucas realizes that he will never be pain free ever again. But he won’t go back to pharmaceuticals to cure the ills.

“My knees hurt, my back hurts, my neck hurts,” Lucas said. “But I’m choosing to deal with it. None of the pain is bad enough that I have to reach for something. I’m not afraid of a gun or a knife, but I am afraid of a little white thing. I know I don’t take my wife and kids for granted anymore.”

Lucas, now 42 years old, discussed the motivation for writing the book.

“I think it was something for me to do to reach someone who is suffering in silence,” Lucas said. “When you go through everything I went through, you want people to know that everything gets better. I never thought in a million years that I would become an author. It’s insane. When I started this, I wanted to make sure it was in my voice. That meant everything to me. It’s just another way for me to reach people.

Added Lucas, “The book has something for everyone. There’s a football aspect to it. There’s a life aspect to it.”

Lucas also spoke about getting Parcells involved in the book.

“Bill Parcells is the second greatest man I’ve ever met, next to my Dad,” Lucas said. “We’ve had some good times together and some tough times. I love the guy. He had no problems with me coming in and playing special teams for him. We talk still all the time. He always calls my wife the wrong name. But he truly cares about me. I knew that early on. I guess it was the Jersey Boy connection. We had mutual respect for each other from the very first day.”

Just like Ray Lucas has respect for himself nowadays, after all he endured, as written in his excellent book.

“Under Pressure: How Playing Football Almost Cost Me Everything and Why I’d Do It All Again,” by Ray Lucas and David Seigerman, is out in book stores and on Amazon.com.

A return to glory for NA girls’ volleyball

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By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

There was a time when North Arlington High School had a perennial power in girls’ volleyball.

Led by Hall of Fame head coach Don Cooper, the Vikings were one of the premier programs in northern New Jersey, culminated with the 2004 NJSIAA Group I state championship.

However, in recent years, the Vikings had fallen on somewhat of tough times. Head coach Bernadette Afonso had been working diligently to get the program back on the right track.

“Even with the tradition we had here, I knew it was going to take a couple of years,” said Afonso, currently in her sixth season as the head coach. “It’s tough filling the shoes of someone like Don Cooper. We did have some frustrating moments.”

But Afonso saw some light at the end of the tunnel last year, when the Vikings flirted with a .500 record and ended with a 14-15 mark.

“We started to play real well together last year,” Afonso said. “We have a good group of coachable young ladies.”

Now having a senior dominated roster, the Vikings knew that this was their last chance to make a mark.

“We feel like we put so much work into it for the past four years,” said senior outside hitter Leandra Acosta. “We knew we could have a good team this year. We had the potential to do some great things.”

“We haven’t had the best of times over the last four years,” said senior Lisbeth Infante. “This year, we’re trying to make up for it.”

The Vikings have exploded out of the gate in 2014, winning seven of their first nine matches.

“We’re like a family,” said senior middle hitter Elizabeth Danco. “We’re all on the same page.”

Afonso likes the way her team has jelled at the right time.

“We’re playing with consistency and confidence,” Afonso said. “And we’re sticking to that. We’re going to see what we can do from here on. Our seniors have really come together and we’re moving in the direction to where we want to be. Their commitment has been excellent. I’m not surprised with the way we’ve started. They’ve been with me for four years and I’ve watched them develop. It’s all coming into place at the right time.”

Afonso likes the Vikings’ attention to detail.

“They’re all students of the game now,” Afonso said. “They realize what they have to do. They play relaxed and play together and that’s the key.”

In a sport like volleyball, where each player has to rely on her teammates, togetherness is essential.

“They do have great chemistry together,” Afonso said. “Chemistry is 99 percent of this game. We had teams in the past that had equal or better skill, but they didn’t play together like this group.”

Senior setter Alexis Rosko took the time in the offseason to play club volleyball to get better.

“It’s a tough job being the setter,” Afonso said. “It’s a trying position to play. But she grew to love the position.”

Former Viking great Ashley Marrero, who played on the 2004 state championship squad, came in to help Rosko transition into becoming a solid setter.

“I learned a lot from her,” Rosko said. “I think because we weren’t expected to do anything, to be where we are, it makes it all more rewarding.”

“The more success she had at the position, the better we became,” Afonso said. “The setter runs everything. Her play is very important.”

Danco has been solid at the net, collecting 10 kills and six service aces per game.

“She’s a very versatile and smart player,” Afonso said of Danco.

Junior Melanie Goffredo is another solid player at the net.

“She’s our most improved player from last year,” Afonso said of Goffredo, who is collecting six kills per game and also has excellent passing skills.

Junior Brianna Wilson is the Vikings’ other player at the net.

“Her skills are improving,” Afonso said. “She’s the first server of the match, so she gets us going. She’s also our most consistent server.”

Acosta has developed into a fine hitter.

“Her skills are improving with every game,” Afonso said. “She’s not the tallest girl in the world, but she’s not afraid to block on the outside. She’s quick at the net and she’s not intimidated at all.”

“I see the banner and the stuff from the 2004 state championship team all the time,” Acosta said. “I say that we can do it as well. It’s definitely a great motivation, because we want to be state champs.”

Infante has also improved tremendously.

“Her confidence level is where it needs to be,” Afonso said. “I’m looking forward to watching her keep improving.”

“This is definitely a reward for our hard work,” Infante said. “Everything is going well this year.”

The Vikings have been getting contributions off the bench from junior setter Yohanna Gonzalez, junior back row player Alyssa Romano and junior setter Tizana Cristiano.

Needless to say, volleyball is a lot more pertinent and exciting this fall in North Arlington.

“It’s been a blast,” Afonso said. “I’m so happy for the girls. When you have chemistry like this, you find success. These girls were able to stick it out, work hard and now we see the results.”

The results are a winning volleyball team in North Arlington – once again.

Lyndhurst continues winning ways in girls’ soccer

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer

It’s never easy when a high school girls’ soccer program has to replace a handful of graduating seniors. But the Lyndhurst High School program lost 12 seniors at last June’s commencement exercises, a staggering total for a small school.

The Golden Bears saw standouts like Grace Tomko, Dina Ingenito and Amanda Nowak move on, the latter two currently playing for the Felician College women’s soccer program. It’s a lot for one program to overcome.

However, the Golden Bears haven’t missed a beat thus far in 2014, winning five of their first six matches, including three straight shutout wins last week against Ridgefield, Queen of Peace and Dwight- Englewood.

The Golden Bears also won three straight contests by identical 8-0 margins. That’s a pretty impressive scoring outburst. Since losing in the season opener to New Milford, Lyndhurst has rolled off five straight wins, all via shutout.

Still, head coach Kim Hykey _ one of the greatest players in the school’s history now serving as coach at her alma mater _ believes that the Golden Bears’ best soccer is ahead of them.

“I still think it’s going to be a transition period,” said Hykey, now in her fourth season as head coach. “The talent is there. It’s just going to take a little time.”

The Golden Bears have a new goalkeeper this season in Sara Barreiros, who has been nothing short of brilliant thus far, posting five straight clean sheets after allowing just one goal in the opening loss to New Milford.

“She has the potential to be a good one,” Hykey said of Barreiros. “She’s not afraid to come out of the goal and hold the line.”

Sophomore Kelsie Kearns inherits the role of being the team’s sweeper. Kearns started as a freshman last year.

“She’s super tough and super fast,” Hykey said. “She’s a warrior back there. She plays bigger than her size.”

Claudia Engels, another sophomore, is the team’s stopper. Engles is also a returning starter.

Sophomore Caitlyn Blake and juniors Joanne Arvanitakis and Gabrielle Franchino are the other defenders who have obviously stood out thus far.

“The back line is young, but experienced,” Hykey said. “I love it, because it means our future is bright back there. Every coach would love to have a young and experienced back line.”

In the midfield, the Golden Bears will count on senior Giana DiTonto, one of just two returning senior starters from the team that went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II semifinals a year ago.

DiTonto collected an astounding 22 assists last year, but Hykey is looking for a little bit more this year. “

She’s going to have to find the net a few more times this year,” said Hykey of DiTonto, who had two goals last year.

“We need her to think shot and not pass a little more this year.” So far, DiTonto has obliged to her coach’s wishes, as she has already surpassed last year’s goal total with five and has amassed an incredible 10 assists in six games. DiTonto is well on her way to a spectacular season.

Jessica Failace has also been a force in the midfield, scoring three goals thus far.

Sophomore Amanda Fulcher, who scored seven goals last year as a freshman, already has six goals this season.

The biggest contribution thus far has come from junior forward Destiny Keith, who has six goals, tied with Fulcher for the team lead.

“She has all the talent in the world and the speed to be very special,” Hykey said of Keith.

Freshman Isabella Pimenta has also contributed as a forward, scoring two goals and adding three assists.

What is truly remarkable about the Golden Bears thus far is that 11 different players have scored at least one goal, which means Hykey is getting a lot of players involved and they are all contributing in a positive manner.

For example, defender Blake has scored two goals already. Engels has also scored a goal and added three assists.

Mia Luna has scored three goals coming off the bench.

There is offensive firepower throughout the lineup, which bodes well for the future. So this might have been a work in progress, but the results have been outstanding thus far.

“We had to grow up in a hurry,” Hykey said. “I think more importantly right now is that we have to stay healthy.”

The Golden Bears already suffered a tough loss to injury, when talented sophomore midfielder Gabrielle Carrion went down with a broken foot. Carrion is working her way back to top playing shape and should be fine in the coming weeks. Carrion scored three goals and had four assists last year as a freshman.

“We can definitely compete,” Hykey said. “We just needed other people to step up. But we’ll be alright. We’ll be fine.”

Sure looks that way so far.

Tonight’s Nutley HS football game moved to Msgr. Owens Field

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Due to weather conditions this week and the need to preserve the final stages of construction on the oval, tonight’s Nutley High School home football game has been moved to Monsignor Owens Field 44 Park Ave.,  at 7 p.m.  Admission to the game is free.

Kardinals kick off new season with solid win

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By Jim Hague 

Observer Sports Writer 

It’s the second year of Nick Edwards’ regime as the head football coach at Kearny High School and already there’s something new and improved about Edwards’ Kardinals.

They won their season opener.

That’s right, Kearny defeated Newark East Side and won handily, 34-6. The Kardinals own a 1-0 record for the first time since 2011 and only the second time since reinstituting the program in 2004.

The news gets better.

“For the first time in a long time, the freshmen, JV (junior varsity) and varsity all won,” said Edwards, who took over the program in June of 2013. “That’s definitely different from recent years.”

Edwards proudly professes that there are 30 sophomores involved with his program.

Needless to say, things are definitely moving up for the Kearny football program.

Edwards was asked about how things have changed in his second year at the helm.

“It’s definitely easier having a full offseason to work with the players,” Edwards said. “The offseason went well with our speed training and weight lifting. I definitely think having that year is paying off. I think the kids understand me more and understand what we’re trying to do here and what we preach.”

Edwards also believes that the kids know that he truly loves them.

“My door is always open for them and they have that understanding,” Edwards said. “We have a good relationship.” Winning helps, as with the season opening win, the Kards have already matched their win total of last year and the previous year. So things have definitely changed during football season in Kearny.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Edwards, whose team faces Livingston Friday night, then plays four straight home games. “It gives us a boost of confidence going forward.”

Edwards likes the makeup of his team.

“We have a good mix,” Edwards said. “The majority of the team is made up of juniors and sophomores who played a lot last year.”

The Kardinals are using the spread-pistol offense, meaning that the Kards like to throw the ball all over the field.

Leading the way is junior quarterback David Nash (6-1, 160), who enjoyed a solid opening game, throwing for a touchdown and running for another.

“He’s doing pretty well,” Edwards said. “He’s very smart and understands defenses. He knows the game of football.”

Junior Hector Paredes (5-8, 170) is the Kardinals’ main running back.

“He’s definitely one of those guys who just wants to win,” Edwards said. “He’s a hardnosed runner who goes all out in practices and games. Nothing ever changes with him.”

The Kardinals have a host of players to fill the four receiver and slot positions. Junior Sammy Sanchez (5-8, 165) had a great season opener, scoring three touchdowns, including an 84-yard interception return for a score.

Seniors Michael and Chris Benevides are a pair of twin brothers who each stand 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds and provide Nash with solid targets to throw to. Junior Tiago Teixiera (5-7, 160) and sophomore Allen Tejada (5-10, 170) are also excellent speedy route runners.

It certainly makes for exciting times for the Kearny offensive attack.

Senior guard Nick Springer (6-1, 230) and senior tackle Owen Martinez (5-10, 220) are returning starters, as is junior Damien Torres (5-6, 180) at center. That experience has to help Nash run the intricate passing offense.

Junior Michael Amaro (6-0, 190) is the other tackle and sophomore Gabriel Dos Santos (5-10, 220) is the other guard.

Defensively, the Kards utilize a 4-4 front, with senior J.C. Yamba (5-9, 175) and junior Christian Rodriguez (5-9, 185) at defensive end and sophomore Hebber Reyes (5-10, 260) joining Springer at defensive tackle.

The outside linebackers are junior Richard Diaz (5-8, 165) and sophomore Ozzie Cabides (5-9, 165), with a pair of sophomores, Brian Santos (5-8, 180) and Niko Yamba (5-8, 160), at inside linebacker.

The cornerbacks are Teixiera, Chris Benevides and Paredes, with Sanchez and Michael Benevides at safety.

Edwards is fortunate to be able to use as many players as possible, giving a host of youngsters a chance to play. The more kids play, the bigger the interest for others, knowing that they can get a chance to get on the field as well.

“We had a lot of kids who came back,” Edwards said. “So the kids know what to expect. We also have kids who understand the importance of schoolwork. We had 54 varsity kids and only one had to go to summer school. That’s a major accomplishment.”

Edwards likes the way the program is moving.

“The numbers are up,” Edwards said. “I never thought we would have 80 kids in the program, but we do. Coming from 30, which is what we had when I took over, I think it’s all good for the program. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and teaching them the right things.”

So far, so good.