Kearny’s Castillo goes out as mature leader

Alan Castillo Jim Hague photo

The seminal moment of Alan Castillo’s life as a high school soccer player occurred two years ago, when Castillo was a sophomore at Kearny High School.

Turn back the clock to October of 2019 as Kearny was preparing to face Clifton in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs. Castillo was already a solid center back, anchoring the Kardinals’ back line.

It was an event off the field that cost Castillo dearly. He got into trouble with a substitute teacher in school and that incident forced Kearny head coach Bill Galka to suspend Castillo on the sidelines for the crucial game against perennial state playoff rival Clifton.

“That was one of the biggest regrets of my whole high school career,” Castillo said. “I should have never had that happen.”

What made things even worse is that Clifton knocked the Kardinals out of the state playoffs with a 1-0 loss. If Castillo played, who knows what might have happened?

“I was furious with Alan,” Galka said. “It really hurt us that he couldn’t play and we lost. When the team turned in their uniforms, I sat him down and told him how much he hurt the team. It was nothing about soccer. He was a very good player. You can’t play varsity for us as a sophomore unless you’re a good player. But he did something stupid and it hurt us.”

“For about two or three weeks, it really bothered me,” Castillo said. “It bothered me a lot. I felt I let my teammates down. I didn’t want that to define my season.”

As it turned out, the in-school incident changed Castillo for the better. It forced him to become more mature and smarter.

“It was a learning experience for me,” Castillo said. “It’s the best way to describe it. It matured me a lot.”

From that point on, Castillo became nothing short of a model citizen. He was certainly remorseful for his actions, but he also became a better soccer player.

And in the season that just ended Saturday with a 6-2 victory over Freehold Township in the NJSIAA Group IV state championship game at Kean University, Castillo was about as good of a center back that the Kardinals have ever put on the field, in the same class with players like First Team All-State selections Will Walsh and Hugh MacDonald, who was the first-ever recipient of The Observer Male Athlete of the Year back in 2002-2003.

“It’s a big honor for me to be considered with them,” Castillo said. “I never thought I could be close to them. It’s a big thing for me to be a good center back like them.”

“He’s been almost flawless for us this year,” Galka said of Castillo. “I can’t remember him making a mistake. He doesn’t get beat often. He also has the ability to cover for others. He reads the game so well. He also has the ability to carry the ball forward and keep going.”

Castillo’s control of the game and picture-perfect play has enabled the senior to be selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week and the final such honoree for the fall scholastic sports season.

Castillo not only controls the play from the Kardinals’ back line, but he has the uncanny ability to place pinpoint long passes that travel 40, 50 yards at times, eventually ending up perfectly at the feet or heads of his teammates. His brilliant pass to Nico Gomez in the first minute of overtime enabled the Kardinals to secure a 2-1 victory over rival Harrison in the Hudson County Tournament championship game at Red Bull Arena last month.

“He’s very accurate with the long ball,” Galka said. “There are very few who can hit the ball that accurately that far. His passes always had a purpose. He really was damn near perfect.”

“I always loved hitting the long ball,” Castillo said. “I just need

Castillo said that he was practically born to be a center back. He played striker for one of the first youth soccer teams he played for in the Kearny Thistle program, but quickly became a defender for life.

“I just had a good way of reading the play and making the play,” Castillo said. “I also have a good way of reading the moment. I know when to step in and make the play. Every time I get the ball, I’m not looking to just keep it and baby the ball up. I’m looking to push the ball forward. It’s the first thing on my mind.”

Castillo said that he worked hard to prepare for his senior season, spending countless hours in the gym and playing for the respected travel soccer program Ironbound FC and its youth

But unlike others who remain with their club soccer program during the fall months, Castillo always had his allegiance to Kearny High in his heart.

“Once the summer came, I only wanted to play high school,” Castillo said. “The time in the gym helped me gain confidence in making tackles. I wanted to build my body.”

Castillo is pleased with the way his senior season ended Saturday with a state championship, cementing his place in Kearny history. If he’s not a First Team All-State selection within the next few weeks, then there should not be such a thing. Castillo is about as good of an all-around defender anyone can find on the high school level. His complete command of the game is astounding and something to marvel.

“He’s well respected by his teammates.” Galka said. “He’s generally very quiet, but he certainly has that intensity you need. I think he commands respect because he’s such a good player. He’s always had a purpose, but this year, he’s been near perfect.”

Castillo likes to hear his place in Kearny soccer history.

“For sure, that makes me feel happier,” Castillo said. “It makes me feel proud of myself. I used to go to all the Kearny games when I was a kid and there was one thing I remembered that they always won. It was always on my mind that I wanted to win a state title with my teammates.”

Mission accomplished. Now Castillo wants to get a chance to play college soccer, but has to improve his grades, so he will have to perhaps pursue the junior college route. Or he might go to Ecuador and play professionally there.

“I wanted to play (NCAA) Division I soccer, but I know my grades aren’t good enough right now,” Castillo said. “That’s my goal. I would like that.”

No question, the talent is there. If he could get his grades in line, Castillo will be right there.

“It’s crazy to say that out loud,” Castillo said. “I never thought I’d be in this position. I just have to stay humble. But this is proof that anything is possible if I keep working and stay humble.”

And realize when a mistake is made. Getting that shot at redemption might be Castillo’s biggest win of all.




Kearny senior defender Alan Castillo. Photo by Jim Hague


Kearny senior center back Alan Castillo, shown here during the Kardinals’ 6-2 win over Freehold Township in the NJSIAA Group IV state championship game Saturday, has cemented his position as one of the best Kardinal center backs of all time. Photo by Jim Hague



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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.”