Belleville football set to grow from last year’s growing pains

With several underclassmen thrown into the starting lineup for the first time, Belleville’s 2022 season featured plenty of growing pains as part of a 1-9 campaign. But while these young Bucs experienced plenty of tough, painful lessons, their work was rewarded with a 40-22 victory at North Bergen in the season finale.

Now, a year older, stronger and wiser, second year head coach Brian Antab is hopeful the positive momentum of the North Bergen win, combined with the lessons from those earlier losses will result in a much better 2023 season.

“The way the year went wasn’t how everybody wanted it to go, but it was a great learning experience for them,” Antab said. “They continued to work hard throughout the season, they stuck together. It was huge for them and their confidence that we were able to come out with a win in that last game of the year against North Bergen. That was great going into the offseason.

“With the way the season went, the kids went into the offseason with a chip on their shoulder and they really worked hard. Coming into this preseason they have a little bit more understanding of the expectations and where they need their games to be.”

There were some bright spots from last season, perhaps none bigger than running back Jeremiah Cook (5-8, 180), who had a breakout sophomore year, rushing for 1,149 yards and nine touchdowns last year.

As impressive as those numbers are, Antab is confident Cook will be able to show off more of his game this fall.

“We expect another big year out of Jeremiah,” Antab said. “He’s continued to work hard and he’s continued to grow as a player and a leader this offseason. He’s a guy that the kids look up to. The kids are really following.

“He’s somebody we used really primarily in the running game, but there are other aspects of his game that he hasn’t really gotten the opportunity to show as much his sophomore year. We hope to highlight him more in the passing game, he’s a very willing and competent blocker. He’s an all-around player.”

Senior Adrian Rodriguez and sophomore Josiah Morton should also get some carries out of the backfield as will starting H-Back Demetri Moya.

Wide receiver should be a big strength for the Buccaneers with senior Khalil Bey (6-1, 185) and junior Elijah Pickering (5-9, 160). A thumb injury limited Pickering for most of last year, but he posted big numbers later in the year as the thumb improved.

“The last couple of games he was able to get out of the cast and wear a smaller brace. He was able to show that when he was close to full strength that he could be a playmaker in the passing game,” said Antab. “He’s an easy target to find in the passing game and he pretty much catches everything that’s thrown towards him.”

Anthony Giunta is another experienced pass catcher out of the slot and Joel Castaneda should also see time at receiver.

Who will throw to this group is still up in the air as junior Anthony Torres and sophomore Jordan Armstrong are locked in a position battle at quarterback for the second summer in a row. Both saw time under center last year and regardless of who wins the competition, Antab is confident they’ll make an impact.

“Anthony has definitely put a lot of work in the offseason to develop his body. He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster and I think that can really help us in the running game,” Antab said.. “Jordan has a natural feel for the game and he’s good at making things happen by navigating in the pocket and getting the ball out and down the field to the receivers. I expect whomever wins the job to be very effective for us this year.”

Left guard AJ Clenaghan, a three-year starter, is the veteran on a very inexperienced offensive line. Senior Michael Sanchez starts at right guard and Osiris Mendez, a junior, is the projected starter at center.

At left tackle, junior Ahmad Manley (6-4, 270) saw some action last year and according to Antab has “the raw skills to be able to be a pretty dominant force,” and Devin Westfield is set to start at right tackle.

Defensively, Belleville has put an emphasis on speed and Antab feels that is the strength of the unit, especially with Bey at outside linebacker and Moya serving as a linebacker/safety hybrid.

“We need to be able to play real fast on defense,” said Antab. “We’re going to be hoping to be moving around a lot. That is something that we will be looking to utilize as a defense.”

Joining Moya in the secondary is Picking at free safety and both Giunta and Anthony Torres at the corners. Cook could also see time at safety.

Rodriguez is a returning starter at linebacker and will be joined out there with Jayden McDaniel and Morton.

Clenaghan and Luis Fajardo are the defensive tackles, while Westfield and Caleb Love are the ends. Love, a 6-2, 220 pound sophomore has had a big preseason and could be primed for a big season.

Belleville opens the year on Friday, August 25 at 5:30 p.m. at Passaic, the first of three road games the Bucs had to start the season as trips to Bayonne and Glen Ridge follow. The Bucs’ home opener is on Sept. 15 against Hackensack, the first of three consecutive home tilts for the team.

“We had a rough go of it last year and we feel like some teams might take us lightly as a result,” Antab said. “But we’re ready to show that we’re a much more competitive team this year.”

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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.)