Belleville football: The future looks bright

Photo by Jim Hague The Belleville football team hopes to be vastly improved over last year’s 2-8 record. From l. are Luis Rosa, Angelo Gaglioti, C.J. Jackowski, head coach Joe Fischer, Nick Guardabasco, Andrew Morell and Victor Prendas.
Photo by Jim Hague
The Belleville football team hopes to be vastly improved over last year’s 2-8 record. From l. are Luis Rosa, Angelo Gaglioti, C.J. Jackowski, head coach Joe Fischer, Nick Guardabasco, Andrew Morell and Victor Prendas.

When Joe Fischer returned to take over the Belleville High School football program last year, he knew he had an uphill climb – once again.

It was almost like the battle Fischer faced when he arrived at Belleville from Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2006. In fact, the scenario was eerily similar.

“We didn’t know how to win,” Fischer said. “That’s the first battle.”

Last year, the Buccaneers finished 2-8 in a year where Fischer knew that the team was going to struggle.

“We knew that we were going to have to take our lumps a little,” Fischer said. “We started eight sophomores and two freshmen last year. We had only three seniors. We were depleted of all upperclassmen. We knew that we had to work on getting stronger and better, work on tackling a lot better.”

So Fischer instituted a year-round program to get more kids involved. The Buccaneers hit the weight room religiously. They also hit the streets together, doing community projects, like cleaning up Belleville Stadium.

When it came time to turn the page on 2014 and look toward 2015, Fischer and his team were ready.

“I told them that basically they were a JV (junior varsity) team playing a varsity schedule,” Fischer said. “To some that might sound a little harsh, but they understood what I was saying. They wanted to get stronger and wanted to get better. They’re absolutely hungry. They’re a little antsy and want to win.”

But the challenge ahead might be the first two games on the schedule. The Buccaneers open the season early this weekend, facing Indian Hills Friday night, then have their annual showdown with neighboring rival Nutley next week.

“Indian Hills is a very good team,” Fischer said. “We know that Nutley is going to be good. We have to keep these kids upbeat as much as possible, but they could be 0-2 to start the year. We just have to play better. That’s all there is.”

Fischer will rely on starting quarterback David Bulna (6-1, 180) to lead the way. The senior Bulna, a transfer from Queen of Peace, has a strong arm and good leadership skills.

“He has already shown the ability to throw the ball down the field,” Fischer said. “He’s a very good pocket passer.”

Senior Joe Rivera (5-10, 170) returns from last year. Rivera had 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Schools like Lehigh and Lafayette are inquiring about Rivera already, so he must also be a very good student as well as a very good running back.

The fullback is junior Terrence Best (5-10, 210), who is a good blocker and solid runner.

Senior Jared Collazo returns at wide receiver. Collazo (5-10, 180) had 33 receptions last season, one of the top totals in Essex County in 2014.

The tight end is senior Victor Prendas (5-9, 205), who was a fullback last season and has been converted into a tight end.

One of the starting tackles is junior Nick Guardabasco (6-1, 240), who is a returning starter and inspirational leader.

“He’s improved so much,” Fischer said of Guardabasco. “His effort is endless. He has a motor that just won’t stop. He’s exactly what we want everyone to be like and to act like.”

The other tackle is junior Luis Rosa (6-0, 215).

Senior Andrew Morell (6-0, 245) returns to his starting slot at guard, where he is joined by senior Angelo Gaglioti (5-11, 185).

Junior C.J. Jackowski (6-1, 210) is the returning starter at center.

“He put on 40 pounds and dedicated himself to becoming a better football player,” Fischer said of Jackowski.

Fischer is pleased with the improvement he sees in his offensive line.

“The offensive line is much better,” Fischer said. “They’re a unit now. We have a new offensive line coach (Mario Culiglio) who has molded this line together. They’re solid now.”

The Buccaneers play a 4-4 defensive formation, with returning starter Richard Martinez (5-11, 175) at defensive end. Martinez started last year as a freshman, so the year’s experience will have to help.

Guardabasco and Rosa are the starting defensive tackles.

Best is back at linebacker, where he had a very good season a year ago. The other outside linebacker is Akush Singh (5-10, 210).

The inside linebackers are Prendas and junior Justin Baldwin (5-7, 165), who is not afraid to mix it up despite his lack of linebacker size.

The cornerbacks are Collazo and Rivera, two of the best athletes on the team, with sophomore Gustavo Viana (6-0, 170) at safety. Fischer loves Viana’s potential in the secondary.

So will the Buccaneers be an improved team this year? They have to be. Last year was a trying time, even for the energetic Fischer, who knows what it takes to rebuild a downtrodden program. He’s done it before – and at Belleville no less.

“The one thing that helps this team is that we all get along,” Fischer said. “We did a team cleansing thing and got rid of all the distractions and problems. There is no friction now. We have a bunch of nice kids. They just have to turn it around now and be nasty on the football field. The key for us is getting through the first two weeks healthy and we’ll go from there.”

It seems like an easy goal, but when it comes to football season in Belleville, nothing is ever easy.

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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.”