NA gridiron team looks to go to state tournament for only the second time in last 25 years

Joe Borkowski knows all about the history of North Arlington’s football program and the limited success it has enjoyed over the years. But as the second year head coach looks around his locker room and sees the amount of experience and talent back, he sees a team that not only has the potential to defy recent history, he fully expects it.

“We’ve only made the state playoffs four times in the history of the program,” Borkowski said of the Vikings, who have qualified for the postseason just once in the last 25 years. “And there’s no reason why this unit can’t be special and be number five.”

This group of seniors have made history already. As eighth-graders, they won the Meadowlands Football League Super Bowl. As sophomores and juniors, they went a combined 7-9, more wins than the previous four years of Vikings football.

Now, North Arlington returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense from last year’s team, which closed the season with wins over St. Mary’s of Rutherford and Roselle Park.

“My goal as a first year head coach was to get them to buy in and do the little things right,” Borkowski said. “We did the little things right and we definitely bought in because we had a phenomenal off-season. A lot of these guys really transformed their bodies, they worked hard, they got stronger, they got faster and we do have experience all over the field.”

Highlighting the veteran group is quarterback Devin Rivas (6-0, 195), who emerged as one of North Jersey’s breakout signal callers after throwing for 1,917 yards and 16 touchdowns a season ago.

As impressive as those numbers were — they were among the best in the state last year — Borkowski anticipates Rivas to show off even more of his talents as a runner this fall after rushing for 310 yards and six touchdowns last season.

“He’s gotten a lot stronger in the offseason and we really focused on making him a better runner this year than last year,” said Borkowski, noting college coaches wanted to see Rivas improve in that area. “Devin is phenomenal. The offense is going to live and die through him. He can run, he can throw, he’s extremely strong and he’s a great leader.”

Top target Jaivon Aquino graduated after a remarkable 836 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but Rivas will get to once again work with two of his top receivers in senior Kyle Villani (24 catches, 423 yards) and junior Ian Crudele (24 catches, 216 yards).

The tandem brings different styles to position as Crudele, a junior, is the shiftier of the two. Villani, a senior, brings more size to the position at 6-0 and 180 pounds.

“We expect Kyle and Ian to step right in and fill those shoes,” Borkowski said. “They’ve been great, they block for each other, they thrive off of each other and they’ve both been very reliable and coachable kids.”

Junior Robert Carselda, better known for his exploits in baseball and wrestling, will also see plenty of time at receiver in the Vikings’ Air Raid attack as will senior Gerald Lawless. Juniors Sean McGeehan and Anthony Baulo could also see time in the slot.

McGeehan (5-11, 185) has been one of the surprises of the offseason and has seized the starting running back job.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” said Borkowski. “He was banged up last year, didn’t play too much offense, he was more of a defensive guy for us. But he’s really separated himself from the other running backs and is going to be a guy who gets the ball a little bit more than we anticipated.”

Baulo, a first-year player, is a powerful runner who will also see some touches as will fullback Dante San Giacomo.

Borkowski is a lot more confident in this team’s ability to run the ball in 2022 thanks to a veteran offensive line that is quite a bit stronger than a year ago.

Four starters are back on the line, starting with tackles Justin Hayashida (5-10, 195) on the left side and Isaiah Alvarado on the right. Juniors Jason Gilbert and Ariel Williams both started at guard last year, but junior Ivan Alvarez is making a serious push to claim a starting spot.

Juniors Jose Rodriguez and Nick Woehlemann are both currently battling for the starting center spot.

On the defensive side, San Giacomo is the heart and soul of the unit. Despite being listed at just 5-foot-5 and a 150 pounds, the four-year starter tied the school record with 113 tackles last season.

“He plays much bigger than he is,” Borkowski said. “He’s sideline to sideline. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached in my coaching career and he’s really the leader of this defense.”

Williams is another veteran run stopper at linebacker, a spot, which will also rely on contributions from Lawless, junior Bryan Louzada and senior Christian Deleon.

McGeehan will see time at outside linebacker as well as defensive end as part of the Vikings’ 3-4 hybrid scheme. Alvarado and Rodriguez are both returning starters on the line. Gilbert is set to start at defensive tackle and AJ Correia will also see snaps up front.

Villani, a four-year varsity player, returns to start at strong safety. Crudele is a returning starter at free safety and Carselda is a physical downhill player, who will make an impact both at safety and linebacker.

The starting cornerback spots are up in the air with Baulo leading a group that includes junior Nathan Smith, sophomore Julian Moya and senior Kenneth Jaramillo.

North Arlington begins the season Thursday, Sept. 1 when it hosts St. Mary of Rutherford and is then home once again eight days later against Saddle Brook.

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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)