NORTH ARLINGTON – After spending the past decade as an assistant football coach at places like Fair Lawn, Wood-Ridge and his native Ridgefield Park, Joe Borkowski decided that his time had come to become a head coach somewhere.
So when he learned that Paul Savage had stepped down after three seasons at North Arlington High School, Borkowski believed that it would be a good fit. The 32-year-old Borkowski applied for the job and eventually got it.
“I wanted to be a head coach for a long time,” Borkowski said. “Ever since I was a little boy, I always said that I wanted to be a football coach, that I wanted to be the guy wearing the whistle.”
Borkowski said that he did his due diligence and liked the idea that the Vikings had a winning record in the convoluted COVID-19 season last year, posting a 4-3 record.
“I did my homework and it reminds me of home,” Borkowski said. “Win or lose, the fans are in the stands. They’re supportive. They’re awesome. It’s a great facility in a good location.”
And Borkowski has fallen in love with his players.
“The kids are great,” Borkowski said. “They bring their lunch pail and come to work. I think if you define ‘small town feel,’ it’s North Arlington. I think we can build off a 4-3 record and move forward, keep this thing rolling in the right direction.”
The Joe Borkowski era cannot begin in a better scenario. The Vikings will kick off the 2021 season Sunday morning at SHI Stadium on the campus of Rutgers University with kickoff slated for 11 a.m.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime memory for these kids,” Borkowski said. “They’re getting the chance to play in a Big 10 stadium. I think we’re all super excited. It’s my first game as a head coach and I’m coaching there? It can’t get any better than that. I think everyone is excited to have this opportunity.”
Borkowski inherits a team that does not return a host of veteran players, so perhaps he begins his new job with a totally fresh slate.
He plans on using a “multi-dimensional” offense, but one that is based first and foremost on the run game.
“We want to run the ball,” Borkowski said. “We will have a lot of two-back sets, a lot of shotgun formations. Our wide receiver group is very deep. I think we’ve all gotten off on the right foot. I’ve been super impressed with their attitude. I think football always comes down to effort. I think that’s the first battle. And these kids want to be good. You can tell that right away. I’m really optimistic that we can continue that trend.”
Leading the way is junior quarterback Devin Rivas. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Rivas brings something to the table that past Viking signal callers simply did not have – size.
“Devin has good size and throws the ball well,” Borkowski said. “He also can run well. He’s a dual threat. The other kids like him because they elected him captain as a junior. He’s been tremendous. He works hard and knows the playbook well. He’s leading this team right now.”
Junior Dante San Giacomo (5-6, 160) is as tough as there is as a high school player.
“He’s as tough as nails,” Borkowski said.
But the Vikings’ featured back will be senior Dylan McDermott (6-1, 190).
“He doesn’t talk much,” Borkowski said. “But he leads by example. He’s such a great kid and he’s like having another coach on the field.”
McDermott should have a big season for the Vikings.
Jaivon Aquino is a 5-9, 170-pound senior wide receiver.a
“He’s a highlight reel,” Borkowski said. “He has good hands and gets to all the 50/50 balls. He’s a precise route runner and has reliable hands.”
Junior Kyle Villani (6-0, 175) is perhaps the hardest working kid in Viking camp.
“He brings it every single day,” Borkowski said. “He comes ready to work. He doesn’t complain and is very coachable. He’s a program guy. I’ll take 11 players like Kyle Villani.”
Here’s a promise: Villani will make at least three positive plays every single game, the type of play that helps your team win. He has that knack.
Sophomore Sean McGeehan (6-1, 175) is another talented wide receiver.
“He’s just a pure athlete,” Borkowski said. “He’s very athletic and very reliable. He catches everything. He’s been very impressive.”
Sophomore Ian Crudele (6-1, 155) comes from good stock. His father Bobby is a North Arlington police officer who has spent countless hours working with youngsters in the North Arlington Recreation department.
“Ian has been a pleasant surprise,” Borkowski said. “He now ends up being a two-way starter for us. He’s explosive and quick. His football IQ is off the charts.”
The offensive line is not the biggest in the world, but can be effective. Senior Nicholas Healy (6-2, 290) and sophomore Ariel Williams (6-0, 190) are the tackles, with Giovanni San Giacomo, Dante’s twin, and Iker Bouzas (5-10, 215) at guard and junior Justin Hayashida (5-10, 200) at center.
“They’re progressing nicely,” Borkowski said.
Defensively, the Vikings will play a 3-4 alignment.
The nose guard is sophomore Jose Rodriguez (5-9, 290), with Bouzas and Williams at defensive tackle. Williams used to be a running back, so he has the speed to play along the line.
“He offered to go to the line this season,” Borkowski said of Williams.
McDermott is a player to watch at outside linebacker, where he is joined by junior Kenneth Jaramillo (5-9, 175). The San Giacomo twins main the inside linebacker slots.
Villani, who made All-NJIC last season at cornerback, returns to that position, along with sophomore Nate Smith (5-7, 155). Aquino and McGeehan are the safeties.
So the rookie head coach is poised to take his team to the banks of the old Raritan Sunday for an NJIC showdown.
“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Borkowski said. “We’ll have a big crowd there from North Arlington, playing in a big stadium.”
Is the coach ready?
“I’ve been pumped the last few days,” Borkowski said. “I’m ready to go right now. I want to get the first one right away. North Arlington hasn’t won the opener since 2015.”
It’s always a good time to break a negative trend, right?
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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.”