The Kearny High School boys’ soccer team enjoyed a magical run last fall in the regular season and Hudson County Tournament last fall, posting an undefeated mark, winning 19 of their contests, including the county title, and logging three draws.
But then, it all came crashing down, when the Kardinals fell to Randolph in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV quarterfinals.
Just like that, the season was over, the great season, the undefeated run. Gone in an instant.
With the loss went the gaudy state ranking, which had the Kards as high as No. 3 in the entire state of New Jersey last season. Stunning losses in the first round of the states can do that to even the best of teams.
Veteran head coach Bill Galka has assembled a team that should be better prepared to handle the pressures of the state tournament this season and quite possibly be a better team than they were last year, despite losing All-State goalkeeper Sebastian Ferreira to graduation. Ferreira is now playing NCAA Division I soccer at Hofstra University.
“We have at least half of last year’s team back,” Galka said. “We have a good group back. I really like what I’ve seen so far. I like the makeup.”
Right now, Galka is deciding who will replace Ferreira in net. It will be either senior Oscar Alvarado or junior Cameron Grimm.
“They’re both working real hard, so for now, they’re going to share it,” Galka said. “Losing Seba was a big loss for us, but we’ll see what happens with these two. They both do a lot of different things in goal.”
In a perfect world, Galka will pick one to be the main net minder, but that decision has not been made.
Along the backline, Galka has a host of veteran and talented players.
Senior Damian Kolodziej started last season in the Kards’ four-across defensive set. Kolodziej has a very strong leg and his height enables him to move up on set pieces.
“He’s very good at the free kick,” Galka said.
Seniors Kenny Santos and Cord Montanino also return from last year, as does junior Adrian Velazquez, who had his fair share of brilliant moments last season.
The Kards have also been bolstered by the return of junior Joao Fernandes, who missed all of last season, but has returned in full form this year.
“I expect that group to be serious threats to score on set pieces,” Galka said. “But I also expect big things from them. It’s a solid group.”
But the Kards may be even stronger in the midfield, where a top player is back from last year and a brilliant newcomer is on the scene.
Senior Marcelo Matta is one of the best all-around players in the state. Matta is the kind of player who does all the necessary little things, but rarely grabs the spotlight. However, if you’re watching a Kearny soccer game, you’re bound to notice him, because he is literally all over the place, doing something good.
“He’s not really a goal scorer,” Galka said. “But he is the type of player that we need to hold the midfield and set up our attack. He’s a very good player.”
The Kards got an unexpected boost when Juan Zapata returned after spending the last two seasons playing soccer with the prestigious Players Development Academy. Zapata will be a senior this season with the Kardinals.
“He’s a guy we always wished we had,” Galka said. “Getting him back was a huge thing for us. He’s going to step in and play right away at center midfield. He can play a little more offensive minded. With him and the guys we still have on the team, it just adds to our attack.”
Senior Calvin Carbajal is another key returnee. Carbajal will join Matta and Zapata to give the Kards one of the most lethal midfield combinations in New Jersey.
Senior Lawrence Gongora will be one of the forwards. Sophomore John Najarro, who scored an astounding 40 goals for the Kearny freshman team last year, has made a successful step up to the Kardinals’ varsity program.
Senior Matthew Neto is a versatile performer who can play either a wide midfielder slot or move up to the forward position.
Junior Borja, a senior, is another who can play both midfield and forward. Both Neto and Borja have strong legs and have shown the ability to score, which will make players like Matta and Zapata even more dangerous.
The Kardinals open their 2015 schedule Saturday at Toms River North at 1 p.m. It is a solid challenge to start the campaign for the Kards to see if they are ready to make a move at top honors in Group IV this season.
“It should be a good test for us right away,” Galka said. “I certainly think we have a pretty good team. We have great potential here. We keep getting better and that’s the most important thing. We still have to find the right situations and the right lineups. That may be a mix and match thing throughout the year, but I think we should be fine.”
In the understatement world that is Bill Galka, “fine” means that the Kardinals will be a county and state title contender and will be the favorite to defeat rival Harrison once again at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 26.
Let’s wait and see what transpires.
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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.”