As a Kearny High school graduate and a former football player, new Kardinals head coach John Policano is well aware of the challenges of trying to build a successful football program within the confines of “Soccertown USA”
But despite all of these obstacles, including not being officially tabbed as head coach on May 1, Policano is optimistic about the program in both the short and long term.
“The kids this year, we just have a really great group of kids and they’ve bought into (and say to themselves),’hey, if we do this and we get better then we can win football games,’” said Policano, who took over for Steve Andrews in May after previously serving as an assistant. “I’m pleasantly surprised with where we are in terms of the buy-in.”
Part of that buy-in has come from the actual quantity of kids in the program. After steady participation in the summer workout program, the start of the preseason has seen the roster balloon to more than 50 players, a number rarely seen in Kearny in recent memory.
The numbers are strong enough that Policano’s goal of having junior varsity games will become a reality this fall.
“We talk about it all the time, it’s about changing the culture,” said Policano. “Changing the culture is hard to do and that’s my ultimate goal.”
A short-term goal is to win more games in 2023 and he believes the talent is there to that.
At quarterback, sophomore Jonas Ruiz, and junior Luis Rodriguez, who returned to football after playing just basketball last year, are in competition. Each brings a very different skill set to the position with Policano potentially playing both depending on the situation.
“They’re two different types of players,” said Policano. “Jonas really has a super-high IQ as a quarterback and he really knows the plays well, even though we’re putting in a new offense (Wing-T). Luis has a strong arm, will likely be one of the starting running backs if not at QB”
In addition to Rodriguez, the running back position will be bolstered by the return of senior Matt Ramirez, who missed most of last season due to injury. Junior Josh Ruiz is equally capable of playing fullback or wide receiver in the Kardinals’ scheme. Chase Negron is another fullback, while Kelvin Hernandez-Zayas, Mason Negron and Omar Melendez will all be in the mix vying for carries as well.
Joining Ruiz at wide receiver are Chris Martinez-Ruiz as well as sophomore Julian Franco. Junior Jonah Menendez, another basketball player who came out for football, and senior Ameer Mills will each see time at tight end.
Three juniors are set to start on the offensive line with Jayden Martinez and Eli Ardolino at the guard spots and Zahir Aquino at right tackle. The left tackle spot is expected to be either freshman Abraham Ramadan and sophomore Ethan Sanchez, while Joseph Carbajal, senior Nicholas Charney and sophomore Giovanni Selay are all competing at center. Konnor Dunwoodie is also set to see time all over the line.
On the defensive side of the ball, Policano believes the line could be the strength of the unit. Sanchez and Ardolino are set to start at the tackles with Aquino, Mills, Ramadan and Charney all involved at defensive end.
Ramirez is set to be at the middle linebacker spot he had before getting injured last season. Julian Franco, Jayden Martinez, Hernandez-Zayas, Virgilio Luengas and Joel Ramsey are all expected to see time at linebacker.
Josh Ruiz and Chris Martinez-Ruiz are the starters at cornerback with Carlos Vazquez and Elias Marino in reserve. At safety, Rodriguez will start with Chris and Mason Negron, Menendez and Harrison Mejia all involved as well.
Kearny begins its second season in the Super Football Conference’s Ivy Division on Friday, Sept. 8 at Memorial of West New York. The Kardinals then have back-to-back home games, hosting Ferris on Sept. 15 and Fair Lawn on the 21st in a Thursday night contest.
My goal this year, for this team, is I want to win football games,” Policano said. “I truly believe we have some talent.”
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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 (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)