BELLEVILLE – Jermain Johnson doesn’t even want to think about another season like the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic plagued campaign of 2020.
“It was so unpredictable,” said Johnson, who guided the Buccaneers to a start, stop and start again 2-4 schedule of a year ago. “We didn’t know how things were going to play out. The unknown was horrible.”
There was first the delay of the start of the season into October. The Bucs started off the season with wins against Millburn and Newark East Side. The prospects looked good for the remainder of the fall.
However, a positive COVID-19 test shut the Bucs down for three weeks.
“We were shut down and couldn’t do anything for those three weeks,” said Johnson, who was set to begin his fourth season last Saturday against Barringer at Newark Schools Stadium. “When we got back on the field, we didn’t know who we were preparing for. We were playing on a whim. It wasn’t good for anyone. There was no consistency at all.”
When the Buccaneers returned to action in November, they had to endure four straight losses to end the truncated schedule, including a 42-7 setback to neighboring rival Nutley Thanksgiving weekend, a loss that sealed an undefeated season for Nutley.
Needless to say, the Buccaneers were not a happy bunch.
“The kids all had a bad taste in their mouths,” Johnson said. “When the season ended, it was just unfortunate how things transpired. We had to take one on the chin in order to get better. The kids who were coming back all understood that they had to work hard for the next year. They worked hard in the weight room in order to get better. They have goals that they want to attain. They want to make some history.”
Leading the way for the 2021 Bucs is talented junior quarterback Brent Rojas (5-foot-9, 185 pounds).
“He can throw and he can run,” Johnson said of Rojas. “He’s our best athlete. We really don’t have a true quarterback. Brent is more of a running back that we made into a quarterback. He just adds to the athletes we have in the backfield.”
The lead running back is senior James Cook (5-10, 185), who had some moments of brilliance last year.
“He’s an explosive runner,” Johnson said of Cook. “He’s very talented. He will be our feature back. He’s really on a different level and he will definitely play college football.”
Sophomore Ezekiel Pina (5-10, 185) is another talented running back.
“He has a lot of potential,” Johnson said. “He’s very talented.”
Pina showed his explosiveness with an electric 60-yard touchdown run against Bloomfield in their game scrimmage.
“He’s going to touch the ball quite a bit,” Johnson said of Pina. “He also has very good hands catching passes.”
Senior Terence Folkes (6-2, 240) is a physical specimen of a fullback.
Senior Al Horne (6-2, 160) is the team’s premier wide receiver.
“He’s a special kid,” Johnson said of Horne. “He was First Team All-League (SCIL Freedom White) as a punter last year. He’s a good route runner. He’s one of our best athletes.”
Senior Brian Dessources (6-1, 200) is another wide receiver.
“He’s one hell of an athlete,” Johnson said of Desssources. “He’s just coming into his own.”
Senior Najee Harris (5-10, 170) is a transfer from East Orange who is eligible to play right away.
“He’s another athlete for our team,” Johnson said.
Senior Chris Vitale (5-9, 180) rounds out the Bucs’ deep receiving corps.
“He can play a lot of positions for us,” Johnson said of Vitale. “He can play tight end or slot receiver. He’s very versatile.”
The offensive line is very young, but Johnson said “shows a lot of promise.”
The tackles are sophomore Juan Minaya (6-6, 290) and junior Eliseo Polanco (6-2, 240). Junior Tayshaun Holland (5-11, 235) and sophomore Jericho Perez (5-9, 225) are the guards and senior Jacob Santo Domingo (5-7, 195) is the center.
Defensively, the Bucs will use a 4-4 defensive set. Folkes, a two-year starter at defensive end, is getting looks from colleges. He’s joined by senior Colin Cook (6-1, 230).
The defensive tackles are sophomore Sterling Fernandez (5-10, 210) and Polanco.
The inside linebackers are Santo Domingo and senior Markeith Stevens (5-10, 210), a captain on the team.
“He’s a ball hawk,” Johnson said of Stevens.
The outside linebackers are Harris and James Cook. That is an electric duo to watch at that slot.
The cornerbacks are Pina and Horne and the safety is Dessources.
There’s another thing to be excited about. Belleville Municipal Stadium and Doc Ellis Field has received a major facelift with brand new state-of-the-art FieldTurf surface. The complex will be christened Friday night when rival Nutley comes calling. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“There will be a lot of people at that game,” Johnson said. “I have a good feeling about this team. I feel that this team has a good chance to contend. If we stay healthy, we can be pretty good this year. But we’re taking it one week at a time.”
It should be an exciting time for Belleville football.
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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.”