STATE CHAMPS!!! — Belleville caps improbable season with first-ever NJSIAA state title

A little over a month ago, the Belleville High School boys’ soccer record stood at a dismal 1-6-1.

Gary Polewka, the veteran coach of the Buccaneers, was at his wit’s end.

“We can’t score at will,” Polewka said at the time. “We don’t have a true striker. We’re falling just a goal short here and there. We are hoping to rattle off a few wins. We’re nowhere we’re used to be.”

It’s amazing how things can turn around in a hurry in high school soccer, especially in a pandemic year.

Because astoundingly, amazingly, the Buccaneers are indeed state sectional champions today.

Saturday afternoon, courtesy of a great set play from Fernando Fajardo to Jonathan Sanchez, the Buccaneers defeated Dwight-Morrow of Englewood, 1-0, to win the NJSIAA Northeast F, Group III-B state sectional championship at Doc Ellis Field in Belleville Stadium.

It marks the first NJSIAA state sectional boys’ soccer championship in the history of the school.

The Buccaneers capped the incredible and improbable run, winning the title despite holding a sub-.500 record. The Bucs finished the season with a 7-8-1 record.

Polewka was still coming to grips with the fact that his team had won a state sectional crown.

“We got hot at the right time,” Polewka said. “We got on a run. I really think once we beat Caldwell (by a 2-0 score), we got a little bit of confidence. We definitely took them one game at a time, but I really feel playing the schedule we did earlier helped us later on. I always felt that if we played our ‘A’ game and everyone did their job, we could compete with anyone.”

Despite the rugged start, Polewka said that his team never wavered.

“I think the kids felt confident all along,” Polewka said. “When they found out they were playing in the state playoffs, they felt like they had a chance at redemption. And obviously, they grabbed it.”

The Buccaneers, who finished the season on a four-game win streak and winners of six of their last eight games, started their march to the state sectional title with a 5-1 win over Bergenfield. They then knocked off Orange, 4-2, in the semifinals to set up Saturday’s showdown with Dwight-Morrow.

“We honestly feel that we play in the toughest league in the state,” Polewka said of the Super Essex Conference. “After we played teams like Livingston, M.K.A. (Montclair Kimberley Academy) and (Newark) East Side, I wasn’t worried about playing anyone else. I knew we could compete with the other teams.”

The Bucs gained a ton of confidence with the win over Caldwell.

“We then worked on some drills in practice,” Polewka said. “We worked on getting some through balls (in the box).”

It resulted in five goals against Bergenfield, the second highest scoring total of the season.

“After that first state playoff game, I said, ‘See what your hard work can do,’” Polewka said.

Sanchez, a senior midfielder, entered the state tournament just hoping that his career wouldn’t end in a loss.

“We started off bad this year,” said Sanchez, who led the team with seven assists. “But we knew the talent was there. I think the last four games or so helped us to see what we should be doing. We were able to push through it.”

Sanchez was battling ankle and quad injuries to get on the field.

“Obviously, as a senior, I didn’t want to miss out on my last games,” Sanchez said.

Fajardo felt the same way.

“We took it game by game,” said Fajardo, who had the three-goal hat trick in the win over Orange, then capped it off by setting up the game-winner Saturday. “Our record didn’t speak for who we were. We knew we had some talent. We played some tough games early. When we were losing early, we kept battling and kept believing. I think that’s what brought us to this. We just needed a little more communication.”

Senior Pedro Barba-Rojas kept the Bucs in the game with a brilliant save in the first half of regulation, just getting his hand on a shot that kept it out of goal.

“He made a phenomenal save,” Polewka said. “He tipped it up and the ball hit the crossbar.”

“Right before the shot, I took two steps back,” said Barba-Rojas, who made four saves to collect the clean sheet, only his second shutout of the season. “Well, those two steps saved my life. If I didn’t take the steps, I never would have touched the ball.”

After the shot hit the crossbar, the ball trickled in front of the goal and Barba-Rojas was able to pounce on it.

When the game headed to overtime, it meant the next goal would win it.

Polewka and Sanchez both hoped that the Bucs could retain possession with Sanchez getting his chance on the ball.

“We used our strength, which is the speed of our wings,” Polewka said. “When Sanchez gets the ball, he’s brilliant. We didn’t face a faster kid than Jonathan. He was the key to what we were doing. He was definitely active in the offensive end.”

“We started the second half and I started maneuvering through their defense,” Sanchez said. “I told (Polewka) that I think I could score. I knew I could beat my defenders. Once we got to overtime, he said, ‘Jonathan, take the shot.’ Fernando saw a gap and gave me the pass. I’m really fast, so I just took off.”

Fajardo hit the streaking Sanchez in stride and Sanchez hit the shot from about 10 yards out, a shot that will forever live in Belleville folklore.

“We were able to open some space,” Fajardo said. “We knew it would happen.”

Fajardo missed his entire sophomore year due to an injury, but made up for it with the win Saturday.

When Sanchez’s shot went in, it set off a frenzy never before seen in Belleville.

“I looked at the scoreboard and looked at the kids celebrating,” Polewka said. “I said, ‘Wow, did this really happen?’ It’s definitely special.”

“I forgot it was a golden goal,” said Barba-Rojas, who transferred to Belleville from Garfield High School via Bolivia last year. “I thought they were just celebrating the goal, not that we won. I didn’t want to leave the goal alone. But then I remembered it was a golden goal (sudden death) and I joined my teammates. It was amazing.”

The winning connection celebrated the goal and the title.

“I have mixed emotions,” Sanchez said. “I happy that we did it, but a little sad it’s over. It’s every kid’s dream to win a state championship. It’s something I’m going to remember my whole life. We made history. We’re the first ones ever. We said that right before the game. We said, ‘Let’s make history.’ And we did.

Added Sanchez, “When I started out my freshman year, it never came into my mind that we could win a state title.”

Fajardo agreed.

“It’s a huge deal,” Fajardo said. “We’re always going to remember this for the rest of our lives. We helped to put Belleville on the map. Kids after us will try to be like us. I hope it rubs off on them as well and they can do the same.”

Both Sanchez and Fajardo hope to play college soccer next fall. Both gained some attention after their fine playoff run.

Assistant coaches Joe Pontiero and Neal DiNapoli played a huge role.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to get this done,” Polewka said. “We’re all disciples of Nutley, including our AD (athletic director Marcellino Marra). But we all bleed blue and gold now. To see those kids’ faces and see their emotions is all I needed.”




The Belleville High School boys’ soccer team celebrates after winning the NJSIAA state sectional title Saturday, the school’s first-ever state sectional championship in boys’ soccer. Photo courtesy of Gary Polewka



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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.”