Harrison boys soccer gains clarity as it starts title defense

When preseason practices began for the Harrison boys soccer team in August August, there was a sense of mystery and uncertainty. New faces had moved into the town, potentially giving a boost to an already talented lineup. But on the flip side, not only was there the task of replacing 11 graduating seniors from last year’s North 2, Group 2 championship team, but injury as well as some missing people during the summer left a roster that was talented, but also one filled with questions.

Three games into the season, veteran head coach Mike Rusek Jr. is starting to see clarity and a renewed optimism that the Blue Tide will once again be in the mix in both Hudson County and Group 2.

“I’m hoping this is the start of something for us,” Rusek said after Friday night’s 3-1 win at New Brunswick, which improved the team’s record to 2-1. “I think in the end everything has kinda fallen into place the last two weeks. I feel like we might not get there (fully) till October, but we’ll get there.”

One place Rusek hasn’t had any concerns about is in net where senior Ismael Kone back at goalkeeper following last year’s breakout state tournament run.

Kone, who shared the starting spot most of last season has seized the starting role to himself after a strong summer.

“He really is looking to finish his high school career on a great note,” said Rusek. “He’s determined this year that the team is going to be good and he’s going to be a big part of it.”

Seniors Jonathan Hermo and Ariel Lopez will also see time in net over the course of the year as well.

Three seniors currently man the back line for the Blue Tide with Cesar Escobar and Leonardo Betancourth starting as the outside backs and Randy Abarca at one of the center back spots. Junior Nick Vergaray is starting at the other center back spot, a position Rusek is hopeful will be bolstered by a midseason return of  Anthony Bento, a senior working his way back from injury.

Junior Chris Perreira has also seen extensive time at the outside back spots for Harrison.

Mattheus Iwamoto, a junior who moved to Harrison from Japan,  is the defensive, center-midfield.

Sophomore Christian Barrios and senior Eann Vieira (two goals, one assist) are both returning starters in the midfield. Junior Joel Rueda is an attacking midfielder, who will often move up to striker as can promising freshman Pedro Barreto Reis.

Senior Renzo Chung and junior Josue Samayoa also have key roles off the bench in a midfield that will be further fortified in a couple of weeks when senior Javier Castillo becomes eligible at the end of the month after transferring from Kearny.

Harrison is once again dynamic up top with Diego Flores Sanchez and Yusufu Jaite both back. Flores Sanchez, who scored the winning goal in the Blue Tide’s North 2, Group 2 title game against Voorhees, has three goals and two assists in his fourth varsity season.

Jaite, a junior, seems primed for a breakout season with two goals and three assists so far. Rusek believes the striker is as fast as anyone in the state, while also developing his on-ball skills at the famed Harrison Courts.

“It seems like he gets quicker and quicker. I’ve never seen anyone that fast. He’s so fast and his skill has developed,” Rusek said. “He’s developed that part of his game where his touch is pretty nice and it’s soft and he can control the ball.”

Harrison looks to build upon Friday’s win at New Brunswick and extend its two-game winning streak with home division contests against Weehawken on Tuesday and Secaucus on Thursday. An Oct. 7 showdown against Essex County Tournament finalist Newark East Side highlights the rest of the regular season slate that includes two games with division rival North Arlington as well as one more with Lyndhurst, following a wild 5-4 win over the Golden Bears this past Wednesday.

But for a program that holds 25 state championships on its resume, Rusek knows the goals revolve around late October and November and the Hudson County and state tournaments. And after some uncertainty a few weeks ago, he believes this team will once again prove to be a stronger contender in both.

“Every year we still feel like we can go compete for that Group 2 state championship, win that (North 2) section and this year has a lot of that as well,” said Rusek. “Over the course of the season, there’s going to be things that don’t work for you, but our eyes are always on going deep in November.”

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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.)