Belleville’s Bucs begin grid season with big win

The Belleville High School football team was the toast of Essex County a year ago, winning seven games, the highest win total the Buccaneers enjoyed since 1981.

It was a dramatic turnaround for the Buccaneers in head coach Jermain Johnson’s second year. His first year led to four wins for the Bucs, after the program won a total of 12 games over the prior eight seasons.

And then, the Bucs win seven games, going 7-3 and just missing out on a berth in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoff berth. It was almost unfathomable, like a fairytale story.

So what could Johnson do for an encore?

Well, the 2020 season provided its major obstacle with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that first brought everything to a screeching halt, then delayed the start of the football season by a month, then forced everyone to take a two-week respite from every activity in September in order to begin the season the first weekend of October. Got all that?

“It definitely derailed us a little bit,” Johnson said. “It was hard, not knowing if they were going to shut us down. Not being able to do anything at all hurt us big time. It hurt us not being able to go to camp.”

But there still was a positive carryover from the 2019 season, as a total of 52 young men showed interest in playing football at Belleville, despite the situation caused by COVID. That total is astounding, considering that just a few years ago, Belleville operated at dangerously low levels of players – like in the 20s – almost unheard of for a Group IV school.

“There was a positive carryover,” Johnson said. “But we were so young.”

Johnson was able to begin practicing full time three weeks ago – of course with the now-standard social distancing regulations.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were going to play at all this year,” Johnson said.

But lo and behold, there were the Buccaneers in full gear getting pumped to take the field last Friday night against a tough customer in Millburn.

The result? Belleville 12, Millburn 7. The carryover made it to the scoreboard. The Buccaneers were victorious. Something wonderful is happening with Johnson’s program once again.

“It’s awesome,” Johnson said. “We honestly thought we had a good shot to win the game. The kids we have are motivated and understood where we came from as a coaching staff.  But there were people who truly thought that last year was a fluke year and that this was the same old Belleville team.”

Some of the prognosticating pundits actually picked Belleville to lose against Millburn. Those people don’t exactly know Jermain Johnson. And they certainly don’t know the Bucs.

Senior Anthony Cecere (5-foot-11, 155 pounds) has returned as the Bucs’ starting quarterback. Cecere completed six of 12 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the win. He also had two interceptions as a defensive back.

“He’s the best athlete on the team,” Johnson said. “He’s just happy to be out there.”

The main running back is one of the best rushers that Belleville has ever produced.

Senior Derek Leigh (6-2, 210) has returned for his final year with the Buccaneers. Leigh had 1,242 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago and was once The Observer Athlete of the Week. He has some major NCAA Division I-AA scholarship offers. Leigh had 70 yards on 15 carries in the win over Millburn.

“He’s just a great high school football player,” Johnson said. “I told Derek that he was going to be the reason of everything else. We have a horse, so it’s time to let’s ride him.”

Junior James Cook, Jr. (5-10, 205) is another member of the Buccaneer backfield.

“He’s a good looking football player,” Leigh said. “He’s going to play a lot for us.”

The wide receiving corps features two juniors, Al Horne (6-1, 170) and Brian Dessources (6-3, 195), who had some clutch receptions in the win over Millburn.

Freshman Ezekiel Pina (5-10, 185) is another member of the receiving corps.

“He can handle playing varsity,” Johnson said.

The Buccaneers have two viable players at tight end in juniors Terence Foulkes (6-3, 215) and Colin Cook (5-11, 200). Foulkes caught two touchdown passes from Cecere in the win over Millburn.

The offensive line is extremely young and inexperienced. It is also a cause for concern for Johnson.

“It’s called ‘Welcome to high school football,’” Johnson said. “The line is very young. But Friday night is what we needed. They got their feet wet together. The thing we needed during the time we were off was the weight room and weight training. We needed the lifting program.”

The Buccaneers have bookend sophomore tackles in Eliseo Polanco (6-3, 240) and Mel Rich (5-10, 260). Johnson is utilizing three players at guard in senior James Garnett (5-10, 240), the starting center last year, senior Matthew Amante (5-9, 250) and sophomore Jesus Rivera (5-9, 250). Senior Edward Galea (5-10, 255) is the center.

The Bucs employ a 3-5 defensive alignment, with Garnett and senior newcomer Raekwon Smith (6-3, 225) sharing time at nose guard and Foulkes and Colin Cook at defensive end.

James Cook, Jr. is at outside linebacker with senior Tobias Lopez (5-5, 145), who started last year and is as tough as nails, playing much bigger than his diminutive size.

The middle linebacker is junior Jacob Santo Domingo (5-7, 175), with senior Lamar Reed (5-10, 195) and junior Markeith Stevens (5-10, 210) at inside linebacker.

Reed came to Belleville from Virginia last year, but started by the end of the season. Reed is an excellent athlete who had a great game against Millburn. Stevens led the Bucs in tackles in the game with nine, including two sacks, and seven assisted tackles. Now, that’s a game! Sixteen tackles and two sacks in his varsity debut is something to write home about.

Horne and Dessources are the cornerbacks, while Cecere returns to his slot at safety, where he has played the last three seasons.

The Bucs have Newark East Side this week. The Red Raiders are licking their wounds after a 56-7 shellacking at the hands of Union City over the weekend. Belleville has a big game upcoming on Halloween when they face neighboring rival Nutley at the newly resurfaced Nutley Oval.

But so far so good for the Buccaneers.

“We’re ecstatic,” Johnson said. “We’re now back to some sense of normalcy. I’m coaching and the kids are playing football.”

And yes, Virginia, Belleville is playing winning football. Once again.

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
+ posts

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.”