By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After a successful career playing soccer, first at Belleville High School, then later St. Peter’s College and then the Kearny Scots-American Club on the semipro level and the New Jersey Stallions of the United States Interregional Soccer League, the forerunner to today’s MLS, Jim Damiano experimented with life in the business world.
“I was a partner in a recruiting firm,” said Damiano, now age 45. “But I wasn’t happy doing it. I always wanted to be a teacher and be with the kids.”
And with that dream came the hope of also being a head soccer coach.
Last year, Damiano returned to his alma mater as a coach and teacher. Damiano coached the freshmen and was an assistant with the varsity under Mike Gaccione.
When Gaccione decided to move on to take an administrative position at another school, Belleville Athletic Director Tom D’Elia recommended Damiano to move into the slot.
“Tom approached me and basically told me that the job was mine if I wanted it,” said Damiano, who ranks as one of the all-time leading scorers at both Belleville and St. Peter’s. “How could I say no? It’s a no-brainer for me to give back to where I was from and where I played.”
Damiano has become a special education teacher in the Belleville school system.
Damiano, whose wife, the former Nadine Gaitka, was the former girls’ soccer coach at Harrison High, before stepping down to concentrate on raising the couple’s two sons, knows that he’s inheriting a program that is on the rise.
The Buccaneers won the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship last season and were competitive in the Essex County Tournament and NJSIAA state playoffs.
“Of course, this should be my honeymoon year, because we only lost two seniors,” Damiano said. “There are usually big expectations when you win the conference like we did.”
Not only has Damiano improved the Buccaneers’ independent schedule, taking on teams like Kearny and Ridgewood in non-league matches, but the Bucs will also face a tougher SEC schedule against teams like Millburn, Glen Ridge, Verona and Seton Hall Prep.
“We’re going to be tested right from the beginning,” Damiano said. “We should have a good team.”
One thing that will change will be the Buccaneers’ approach.
“We’ve made a few changes in style and we’re going with a 4-5-1 lineup,” Damiano said.
The move was to accentuate the talents of returning senior midfielder Max Correa, easily one of the best returning players in Essex County, never mind the state.
“He’s extremely good with the ball,” Damiano said. “He’s exciting to watch.”
The Bucs also have talented sweeper Marlon Rodriguez, who will be a senior. Rodriguez made all the defensive moves, leaving the offense to players like Correa..
“When you have a player like Max, you have to do something to get the most of his talent,” Damiano said.
The Bucs also returned speed striker Luis Lopez, who scored 28 goals last season.
“The talent is there,” Damiano said. “I knew when Mike was leaving that this was going to be a good returning team. The kids knew that when Mike was leaving, they wanted me to take the job. They didn’t want anyone else.”
The Buccaneers began their official offseason workout regimen last Saturday, so the players got a sense of what Damiano is looking at as a head coach.
“Every day,” Damiano said. “Every single day, we’re looking toward this season. The kids are very responsive to the changes we’ve made.”
Damiano said that he has been ready for the challenge ahead. Playing soccer all the time with his two sons, James (age 9) and Nicholas (age 7) has kept Damiano on his toes. It’s safe to say that the Damiano family is definitely a soccer family, with two coaches and two active sons.
“It’s all the time,” Damiano said. “We’re constantly playing soccer on the front lawn. It’s non-stop.”
But the former Buccaneer great is ready to take over the program he once played for.
“It’s really a dream come true,” Damiano said. “I thought I might have a chance to coach in three to five years. It’s a real treat for me to be able to coach where I played. I’m excited.”
It appears as if the rest of Belleville is equally excited.