Blue Tide looks to reload instead of rebuild

Defending NJSIAA Group I soccer champ features almost new roster

Photo courtesy Rich Tuero The Harrison soccer team will once again contend for state honors despite losing 16 players to graduation from last year’s NJSIAA Group I state title winners. Front row, from l.,, are J.P. Lara, Harman Briceno, Paul Eckert and Nay Moreno. Back row, from l., are Joshua Seebeck, Juan Restrepo, Christopher Crespo, Diego Porres, Edgar Orellano and head coach Mike Rusek.
Photo courtesy Rich Tuero
The Harrison soccer team will once again contend for state honors despite losing 16 players to graduation from last year’s NJSIAA Group I state title winners. Front row, from l.,, are J.P. Lara, Harman Briceno, Paul Eckert and Nay Moreno.
Back row, from l., are Joshua Seebeck, Juan Restrepo, Christopher Crespo, Diego Porres, Edgar Orellano and head coach
Mike Rusek.

It was business as usual for the Harrison High School boys’ soccer team last year, as the Blue Tide won 24 games, capturing the NJSIAA Group I state championship for the 25th time in the school’s history, which represents a state and national record.

It was the seventh time in head coach Mike Rusek’s 15- year tenure that the Blue Tide won a state crown and the lopsided 4-0 win over Haddon Township in the state title game gave Rusek the 300th victory of his coaching career at the school. It capped a run where the Blue Tide outscored the opposition by a gaudy 32-1 margin in the state tourney. It was truly an amazing year.

As the 2015 high school soccer season approaches in a few weeks, Rusek finds himself in a bit of a different situation. Sixteen members of last year’s 24-3 state champions have graduated, leaving Rusek and his assistant coaches, namely brother John and father Mickey (along with Pedro Martinez) with a bit of a quandary.

“We lost a lot of experience and a lot of talent,” Rusek said. “We have definitely taken a hit on experience. Last year’s team was on a mission. They had some unresolved business from the year before and had a real hunger to them. They were basically coaching themselves. But they’re mostly all gone now. We’re starting up again.”

Rusek doesn’t mind that the Blue Tide will basically be starting over this year.

“That’s the fun part of high school soccer,” Rusek said. “We’ve spent a lot of time getting back to basics. A lot of these kids are young, so we’re teaching all over again, teaching everything, different systems. We’re working on all the basics, dribbling, passing and shooting. On the high school level, we’re all teachers first. That’s what we do. We’re teachers at heart.”

Despite the massive turnover in the Blue Tide roster, you can count on one thing. Come November, the Blue Tide will be a contender for state title No. 26.

One thing is already obvious. There are a lot of interested soccer players in Harrison.

“Some years, we’d have numbers in the 30s and 40s,” Rusek said. “A lot of kids were a bit nervous and intimidated by the seniors we had coming back. But now, kids see the opportunity to make the varsity and play.”

So the turnout in the early going has been astonishing for a Group I program, with as many as 60 youngsters in camp.

“We’re still a week away from school opening, so the turnout has been impressive,” Rusek said. “We’re in good shape there. We need to have practices with them, keep working on the basics.”

Junior Chris Crespo has earned the nod of being the starting goalkeeper. Crespo remained with the Harrison varsity for the entire 2014 season, but saw very little playing time.

“I hope he picked up good habits and learned a lot from last year,” Rusek said. “It’s his turn to be in there.”

Senior Edgar Orellano has the chance to be the Blue Tide starter at sweeper. Incredibly, Orellano has never come out for the team before this season.

“He thought he was a bit slow and didn’t have a chance to play,” Rusek said. “He’s decided to give it a shot this year and he’s doing well.”

Junior Joshua Seebeck is looking like the starter at stopper.

“He’s played a lot of club soccer and knows the game very well,” Rusek said.

Senior Jason Sellmeyer was a bench player last year for the Blue Tide, but will get a chance to start at defender this season. Junior J.P. Lara, junior Diego Porres and sophomore Harman Briceno are all battling for playing time at the other defender slot. Briceno was the Most Valuable Player on the Blue Tide junior varsity last fall.

“We always thought he was a good player,” Rusek said. “He has been a midfielder on every other team he’s been on, because he has midfielder skills.”

Briceno may get a chance to show off those offensive skills from the back line this season.

The Blue Tide does have some experience at the midfield position.

Senior David Inahuazo will be a fixture at center midfield this season. Inahuazo scored nine goals and tallied 14 assists a year ago.

“He was always doing something with our other midfielders,” Rusek said. “We’re going to put a lot on his shoulders. This is basically going to be his team to run. He has watched the part that the senior leaders played with the team and this is his opportunity to lead this team. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that the other seniors had, but we expect big things from him. He’s a good, quiet leader. He hasn’t missed a practice and worked very hard.”

Another key returnee is senior Cristian Marquez, who has spent time this summer playing in his native Peru.

“He’s a good offensive center midfielder,” Rusek said of Marquez, who scored 18 goals and had 15 assists last year. “He can be a very dangerous player.”

Sophomore Didiyry Chamba has been impressive so far in the midfield.

“He’s an up-and-coming talent,” Rusek said. “He has a good chance to break out this season.”

Freshman Omar Sowe, the younger brother of former Harrison All-State defender Modou Sowe, has a chance to see significant time in the midfield.

“He’s a different player than Modou (now at Ramapo College),” Rusek said. “Omar is more of a finesse player.”

Another freshman Kaleb Braga has a good opportunity to see quality time as a true rookie.

Senior Andres Villalobos keys the forward line. Villalobos didn’t see much action last year.

“I’m hoping that he can make the big step up,” Rusek said. “He’s a big, strong kid. I can see him becoming a nice surprise.”

Sophomore Ney Moreno is one of the most versatile Blue Tide performers. Moreno scored a goal last year in the game against Kearny and can also play defender when called upon.

“I think we’re leaning toward playing him at forward,” Rusek said. “He has good size to have up front.”

Sophomore Henrique Lopes, a native of Brazil, will also see time up front, but he’s battling a foot injury right now.

“When he’s healthy, he’s a very good player,” Rusek said.

The Blue Tide opens the 2015 season Sept. 11 against Queen of Peace and faces rival Wallington at home under the lights on Monday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. The Blue Tide will face neighboring rival Kearny at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, Sept. 26, which should be a phenomenal day for local soccer.

Rusek has high hopes for his team – as he always has.

“Every year, over the past 15 years, the goal has always been to win the state championship,” Rusek said. “You can call this a rebuilding year, but I think we can compete with anyone. By the time we get to November, I think we’ll have a team that will know how to win.”

Sure thing. It happens every year.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”