He was all set to become the premier goal scorer for one of the best teams in New Jersey, but Joao Fernandes walked away from it all.
Fernandes, the Kearny High School senior, scored six goals and had four assists over the first three weeks of the current season playing striker for the Kardinals. He was all set to claim the accolades and honors that are always bestowed upon goal scorers.
But Fernandes felt like he really wasn’t helping the Kardinals, so he approached head coach Bill Galka with a lineup change.
“It was actually my choice,” Fernandes said. “I spoke to Coach Galka and told him that I really thought it would be better for the team if I played in the back. I didn’t need to be up there with the rest of them. We had enough talent there. I should be a defender. It’s my main position.”
Fernandes was indeed a solid defender on the Kearny team that lost only once. He is also a defender on his club soccer teams.
But Galka thought that the team lost a ton of firepower _ some very unexpectedly _ and needed a shot in the arm. He felt there was no one better to provide that spark than team leader and captain Fernandes.
“He was willing to sacrifice for the good of the team,” Galka said. “I applauded that. He’s just a good all-around player. I thought he deserved the chance to be up top, but he’s a good defensive player. He reads the game well and is solid defensively.”
So Fernandes unselfishly made the switch from forward to defender. And with that, the Kardinals’ fortunes changed for the better.
“I’m actually comfortable back there,” Fernandes said. “At first, Coach was a little surprised that I suggested it, but he realized it as well. He knew how much I liked playing back there. He knew it was my position. It really wasn’t a problem at all.”
Fernandes said that he always played defender as a kid.
“It was the position I always played growing up,” Fernandes said. “I like being the one who prevents the ball from going in the net. I take a lot of pride being back there and stopping goals.”
Last week, Fernandes did his part both ways for the Kardinals, helping them secure their first NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectional championship in five years.
Last week, Fernandes was instrumental in helping the Kardinals post shutout wins over Montclair (1-0) and Fair Lawn (3-0) to reach the state sectional title game.
Then last Friday, after the Kardinals and West Orange, the No. 11-ranked team in the state, played to a scoreless draw after two overtimes, Fernandes delivered the first goal in the penalty kick stage, setting the stage for the Kardinals to come away with the 1-0 victory and win the state sectional title.
For his efforts, Fernandes has been selected The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Fernandes said that he was confident that the Kardinals would defeat West Orange.
“I truly believe that we needed to just go out and play hard,” Fernandes said. “We all worked so hard together to get to this point. We were close together since the beginning of the season. I knew that we had a lot of talent. We just had to put it all together.”
The Kardinals had a lot of talent last year as well, entering the state tournament as the team to beat in Group IV, but they were shocked in the sectional semifinals, ending that dream.
With a lot of those players gone, things didn’t look good for a return run. But Fernandes kept the faith.
“We knew we had a lot of young players coming up,” Fernandes said. “Once we had the chance to come together, we knew we could get a lot accomplished.”
But the Kardinals came up short in the Hudson County Tournament, losing in the quarterfinals to Union City.
“We were disappointed that we lost that game,” Fernandes said. “It just gave us motivation for the state tournament.”
They haven’t lost since, winning nine straight games to improve to 17-3-2.
“After losing the Hudson County Tournament, we felt like we had something to prove,” Fernandes said. “We went for something greater and that’s winning the state sectional. It means a lot to us.”
Fernandes would love to play college soccer, but he’s undecided as to what path he will take. He may go to a post-graduate prep school to enhance his chances to play at a higher level or attend a local school where he could play right away.
For now, he’s content to lead the Kardinals into the overall Group IV semifinals against Scotch Plains-Fanwood at Somerville High School, scheduled for Tuesday night.
“The sectional title is pretty good, but we hoping to get that main state title,” Fernandes said. “That’s what we’re shooting for. We’re a team that can go all the way. We have two games left for that.”
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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.”