North Arlington advances to NJIC boys’ soccer semis

For all intents and purposes, it was a trying season for North Arlington head boys’ soccer coach Jesse Dembowski.

“We’ve had our highs and lows,” Dembowski said when his team reached the .500 plateau with a 6-6 record.

At that point, the Vikings were in the lowest of lows, a crevasse, a canyon that not too many teams – in any sport – are able to drag themselves out from. The Vikings had lost an uncharacteristic five games in a row. One loss to Wallington was a 6-0 shellacking. Things didn’t look good at all.

“We’re fantastic one game and horrible the next,” Dembowski said after the Vikings suffered a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Ferris. “It’s been hard to hit any rhythm.”
But Dembowski kept the faith.

“When we hit a rhythm, we’re really good,” Dembowski said. “When we come out with energy and come out ready to play, we can play. But we have to come out of the gates strong.”

Dembowski knew that the Vikings had the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference tournament to deal with and after drawing New Milford in the first round, Dembowski’s glass was definitely half full. One could hear it in his voice. He was not a defeated coach.

“Everyone is equal in the tournament,” Dembowski said. “The records don’t matter. If we come out with chemistry and play together, we have a good chance.”

Bingo. Dembowski was like a fortune teller.

The fortunes of the Vikings made a complete 360-degree turn after the loss to Ferris. They have won three straight matches – defeating New Milford, 1-0, via an overtime shootout in the opening round of the NJIC Tournament, then defeating Saddle Brook, 5-1, in a regular season contest, and then knocking off Elmwood Park, 2-0, in the quarterfinals of the NJIC Tourney.

The Vikings, now with a proud 9-6 record, will face Wood-Ridge in the semifinals of the NJIC Tournament Saturday at Wood-Ridge at 10:30 a.m.

North Arlington has a strong history in the NJIC Tournament, having won the title in the first year of the tourney in 2017.

In the opening round of the NJIC Tourney against New Milford, the game was played to a scoreless deadlock after 80 minutes and two 10-minute overtime sessions. The contest then had to be decided via shootout and it went to the agonizing sixth round of shootout kicks.

In that sixth round, brilliant goalkeeper Tony Alho converted a kick, then he made the critical save to protect his shutout and win the game.

Alho, a junior, has done that a lot in his career, both as a soccer player and a baseball player. This time, it was as clutch as a net minder could be, collecting 11 saves in regulation and overtime, then making the big save in the shootout.

“It makes my job easier, knowing we have Tony back there,” Dembowski said. “We’ve had some troubles with our defense, but Tony’s been a big help. In some games, he’s been our defense. If he’s not the best goalkeeper in our league, then he’s one of the best. His instincts are right on. It’s like he outguesses the opponent. He cuts down angles and he’s aggressive coming out of the net. He’s also strong in the box. He’s been solid all year.”

In the NJIC quarterfinals against Elmwood Park, sophomore Tiago Alves and sophomore Matthew Muchotrigo (which translates into English as “a lot of wheat”) each scored a goal and Alho collected five saves for his second clean sheet of the tourney.

Notice the youth of the team – it’s a predominant theme.

“We’re extremely young,” Dembowski said. “We’re more junior and sophomore based.”

Because Dembowski believed that the Vikings were going to be very strong in the midfield, he decided to go with a different “three-across” formation, meaning he utilizes only three backs on the backline instead of the conventional four.

“We have a lot of good midfielders,” Dembowski said. “Based on our personnel, going with a midfield-based alignment meant we thought we control the ball in the midfield. It is a little bit of a gamble, but we have Tony. Having a goalie like that makes up for a lot of problems. I didn’t mind making the gamble.”

The right back is sophomore Shane Gilchrist, the center back is freshman Sean Manzo and the left back is junior Nicholas Rotondo.

That’s a young defensive corps with a freshman right smack in the middle.

“He’s fantastic,” Dembowski said of Manzo. “He had to wait half of the season because he tore ligaments in his hand. He just came back into the lineup a week ago. He’s one of the best defenders I’ve ever had.”

Manzo also might be the good luck charm. Since he’s returned from the injury, the Vikings have not lost.

“They’re all young and aggressive,” Dembowski said of his defense. “They’ve been aggressive and winning a lot of 50-50 balls.”

The Vikings utilize five players in the midfield. Senior Jaden Seguera is one of those players. He was the team’s center back while Manzo was out. Now that the fantastic freshman has returned, Seguera has settled into his normal defensive midfielder position.

Senior Rogerio Claro is a returning starter in the midfield, along with classmate Seguera.

Junior Victor Batista is an offensive minded midfielder.

“He’s a scorer,” Dembowski said of Batista, who has scored 10 goals and collected five assists this season. “He’s one of the most talented midfielders I’ve coached. He controls the play.”

Junior Jared Velazquez and the aforementioned Muchotrigo are the other two midfielders.

The forwards are junior Aidan Hughes and Alves.

Hughes has scored six goals this season.

“He has such a powerful leg,” Dembowski said of Hughes. “He’s not the fastest kid around, but he gets into the right spot in the box at the right time.”

Alves is one of the team’s top scorers with 11 goals and five assists.

“He takes the majority of our shots,” Dembowski said.

Sophomore Ethan DeJesus and junior Chase Correa are solid contributors off the bench.

“We have only two starting seniors,” Dembowski said. “I think we have a hunger now. I think there’s a lot of chemistry. They know they have something to play for (the league championship and the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs). It’s a very emotional run.”

And it still has a few emotional times left to go.



The North Arlington boys’ soccer team has advanced to the NJIC Tournament semifinals against Wood-Ridge Saturday in Wood-Ridge at 10:30 a.m. Front row, from left, are Nicholas Rotondo, Jaden Segura and Metin San. Back row, from left, are head coach Jesse Dembowski, Steven Leister, Tony Alho, Sean Manzo and Rogerio Claro. 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.”