Kearny boys’ soccer: Just like old times

Even though the Kearny High School boys’ soccer team posted an impressive 11-3 record during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic world of 2020, there was still a level of concern heading into the 2021 season.

“The kids were worried whether we were going to play or not,” said veteran Kearny head boys’ soccer coach Bill Galka. “They were worried whether we were going to have a full season.”

Well, the Kardinals did have the best record in the Hudson County Interscholastic AthleBut tic League a year ago, it wasn’t full slate of games. And there wasn’t either a Hudson County Tournament or an NJSIAA Group IV state playoff to hang their hats on. There was just the 11-3 record and not much else.

But with the pandemic more than likely now in the rearview mirror and all schools scheduling a full allotment of games prior to the county and state playoffs, the Kardinals have to be considered a favorite to win both postseason tourneys.

“We’re glad to have a full compliment of games,” Galka said. “I’d say that we’re back to normal.”

The Kardinals have a deep and talented roster, led by senior Luis Rojas, who came out of nowhere a year ago to collect a state-best 23 goals in just 14 games. Rojas will see time at both forward and midfield this season.

One thing’s for sure: Everyone and their mother knows that Rojas is a potent scorer.

“I’ve been telling him that all summer,” Galka said. “I said, ‘Now you’re known.’ Teams have to be paying more attention to him. He was recognized as the league’s MVP, so the league’s coaches know who he is. We have to keep him level headed.”

The Kards won their first two games of the new season last week, soundly defeating Hudson County rivals Union City (3-1) and Dickinson (4-0), two squads who should be among the HCIAL’s playoff teams come November.

Rojas scored a goal in the Kards’ win over Dickinson.

“We’re hoping that he can do what he did last year,” Galka said. “We certainly want the team to be more balanced scoring than we were last year, but we certainly want him (Rojas) to be scoring goals.”

Senior forward Dalton Davila has scored two goals in the first two games. Davila had six goals and four assists last season.

“He gets us going both ways,” Galka said of Davila. “He scored a nice goal against Dickinson.”
Junior Johan Baez is a center midfielder who scored a goal and added an assist in the first two games.

“He has to be a good distributor of the ball, playing center mid,” Galka said.

Senior Aidan Mansilla has collected a goal and an assist as well.

“He has good skills,” Galka said of Mansilla. “He’s a tricky lefty who has the ability to take on players. He has the ability to score.”

Senior Alan Antonelli is a solid contributor in the midfield. Junior Nicholas Gomez is a first-year varsity player who has impressed Galka. Junior Alejandro Alvarado is another first-year varsity performer in the midfield.

The Kardinals welcomed a familiar name to the fold this season. Cristian Escandon is the younger brother of former Kardinal superstar Jose Escandon, who was the New Jersey Player of the Year in 2018, the last year the Kardinals won the Group IV state crown. The elder Escandon is now playing at nearby NJIT. The younger Escandon has a ton of talent.

“He’s been a good fit with the team,” Galka said. “He’s getting more comfortable with the team every day. He’s good on the ball and certainly can do a lot of things on his own. He’s a good passer. He’s not a greedy player. He knows what to do. He does have some similarity to his brother, but I don’t think anyone is comparing him to Jose.”

Senior Angel Tovar is a two-year varsity fixture in the midfield, but he’s more of a defensive midfielder.

“He’s winning every tackle so far. I’m expecting him to play a lot.”

The Kardinals welcome back goalkeeper Joshua Rodriguez between the posts. The senior Rodriguez has stopped all but one of the shots he faced the first two contests.

“He’s doing well,” Galka said of Rodriguez. “We expect him to be a leader back there. He’s pretty good with his feet. He has a good soccer mentality and reads the game pretty well. He’s a good shot stopper.”

Sophomore Alexander Cruz is Rodriguez’s backup in goal.

The Kardinals utilize a “four-across” defensive approach. Seniors Alan Castillo and Daniel Velazquez return to their starting roles along the Kardinals’ backline.

“They’ve been playing together for three years,” Galka said of Castillo and Velazquez. “They pick each other up well. It’s good to have two experienced guys there.”

Junior Michael Reis is another defender with a lot of experience. Senior Gerald Cohertero is the final starter on the backline. He returns to the Kearny High roster after playing club soccer the last two seasons.

Max Silva is a junior who is working his way back into shape after an injury. He’s awaiting clearance to return.

Others seeing playing time on the backline include junior David Cabral, junior Andres Rozo and senior Danilo Parreira.

“We have a good group back there so far,” Galka said. “They’re all going to play.”

The Kards have talented forwards to join Rojas up front. Junior Giovanny Furbino has been “the most surprising,” according to Galka. Senior Caua Santos has been “a work in progress,” according to the coach.

The Kards have a tough test this week when they travel to Caven Point Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City for a showdown with HCIAL contender St. Peter’s Prep.

“I think that will tell us a lot,” Galka said. “If we can get a good result, then that will put us a good place.”

The Kards have an independent showdown with perennial Group III contender Delran upcoming.

“I don’t think we can take any game lightly,” Galka said. “We just want to get better week-to-week and be right there in the end of October. I know the kids are looking forward to it. They’re thrilled to be back.”

And to have something to play for.

Learn more about the writer ...

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.”