North Arlington tries to recover from disastrous winless grid season

The North Arlington High School football team endured a brutal 2017 season, with the Vikings losing all eight of their games, some of which were by lopsided fashion.

“It was a learning experience for everyone,” said Paul Savage, who begins his second season as the Vikings’ head coach when the Vikings face Becton Thursday night. “We had our kids getting a learning experience. It was for me as a first-year head coach. We had our kids taking their licks. I told them that they had to understand that we were going to give some people good games and we did at the end of the season against Weehawken (a 34-12 loss) and Bogota (a 55-41 loss). We sat everyone down at the end of the year to tell them that it was a learning experience for everyone. It had been a long time since we had been 0-8.”

But soon after the disastrous season was over, Savage said that he began to see the light.

“After that last game, the kids bought in 100 percent,” Savage said. “We instilled into their minds that they should take that year as an experience and move forward. Since then, everyone has bought in.”

Savage made a change in his coaching staff, bringing in former Harrison head coach Mike Hinchcliffe to serve as the defensive coordinator. Former Queen of Peace standout brothers Mike and Danny Lamego are also assistants under Savage. Mike Lamego was an All-State linebacker for the Golden Griffins, leading them to the NJISAA Non-Public Group 2 state championship in 2004.

“I trust them,” Savage said. “The kids are getting so much better with their help. It makes my life 100 times easier.”

The Vikings will also entrust the services of senior quarterback Will Cruz (5-9, 170), who is back for his third year calling the signals.

“I expect him to be that coach on the field,” Savage said. “I expect a lot from him. The offense is running so much smoother now. He has a very good arm and can make every throw.”

Leading the way in the Viking backfield is junior Alvaro Gongora (6-2, 210).

“Alvaro started off with us as a tight end, but he’s moved to halfback,” Savage said. “He picked it up real quick. He’s a hard runner.”

The fullback is senior Steve Bello (5-7, 155). Also in the backfield is senior Karim Wahby (5-8, 155), junior Rob Tomasko (5-7, 190), a transfer from St. Mary’s (Rutherford) who has to sit out the first four games of the season, and freshman Dylan McDermott (5-7, 140), who has the potential to be a solid player for the Vikings.

The wide receiver corps has a lot of experience, especially seniors Val Boyko (5-9, 155), Jayden Martinez (5-9, 155) and Zach Young (6-2, 175) and sophomore Joey Witt (5-6, 150).

Young is an interesting story in that he didn’t play football the last two seasons.

“But we managed to talk him back to playing,” Savage said. “He’s made an impact on us.”

The Vikings have two tight ends to call upon in seniors Ryan Clifford (6-1, 175) and Dylan Santos (6-2, 235). Clifford is a former center who has been transformed into a tight end.

The offensive line players all return from last year. Seniors Dante Andrews (6-0, 220) and Kenan Kimil (5-10, 205) are the tackles, with junior Jeremiah Mercado (6-0, 250) and senior Jose Gongora (5-11, 200 and Alvaro’s brother) at guard and sophomore Pete Ziakos (5-10, 260) at center.

“Having the whole line back is a huge plus,” Savage said. “It makes me think that we can turn this around and change the minds of some people. I think now everyone on the team knows what to expect.”

The Vikings will play a 4-3 defensive scheme with many of the same personnel from the offense turning around to play defense.

Santos and Andrews are the defensive ends with Mercado and Jose Gongora at defensive tackle.

The outside linebackers are Clifford and Bello, with the middle linebacker being Alvaro Gongora.

Boyko and Martinez are the cornerbacks with Witt and Cruz at safety. Again, Cruz is a three-year starter in the secondary.

“His experience back there is invaluable,” Savage said.

The Vikings will be bolstered after the fourth game of the season with the addition of junior Chris Stirone (6-1, 250) at defensive tackle. Stirone is also a transfer from St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

The Vikings open the 2018 season on the road to face Becton Regional at Riggin Field Thursday night at 6 p.m.

“We’re definitely going to go up this year,” Savage said. “Our schedule is rough, but we’ll be an improved team.”


The North Arlington football team will look to an experienced offensive line to lead the way in 2018. From left are Kenan Kimil, Jeremiah Mercado, Pete Ziakos, head coach Paul Savage, Jose Gongora and Dante Andrews. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”