Belleville boys soccer feels ready for challenging closing stretch

The Belleville boys soccer team is reaching the most challenging part of its schedule during these final days of the regular season.

And that’s precisely how head coach Gary Polewka wants it.

The final eight days of the regular season begins with home games against Glen Ridge and West Essex, both play in higher divisions within the Super Essex Conference. Then, after a home game with North Star Academy, the Bucs conclude the regular season by going to a Livingston team, currently ranked No. 19 in the Top 20.

“I always want a tough game right before the states and Livingston, a Top 20 team (in the state), Group 4? Absolutely. We were all about that,” Polewka said. “Every year we always play West Orange and try to find games like Verona, Bloomfield. It was by design to try to get us playing at the level where this is the expected pace in the state tournament.”

Belleville enters this final stretch with just one loss, a 1-0 setback to Montclair Kimberley in the Essex County Tournament, in its last eight games (6-1-1).

A big reason for the recent success is a better balance on offense than it has had in recent years. Through 14 games, three different Bucs have scored six or more goals.

Leading that attack with eight goals and an assist has been sophomore Uriah Vergara, who entered the starting lineup just two weeks ago, scoring six goals in his last six games.

“He’s a true striker,” Polewka said. “He understands position. He knows where the wings are and he understands the game and sees stuff happening better than some of the other kids who are forced to play up top, but aren’t really that true inside striker or scorer.”

Sophomore Rafael Alves de Carvalho, who has a team-best 18 points (six goals, six assists) starts at the other forward spot. Starting midfielders Eric Castillo (seven goals, two assists) and Jorge Carrion (two goals, one assist) as well as Randy Landaverry (three goals, one assist) also see time up front.

“This year we have multiple guys putting goals in where last year, we were relying on Ivan Garcia or the year before John Ruiz. They were both putting in 15, 16 goals,” said Polewka. “It’s spread around now so a goal can come from a number of players on the field.”

Castillo, who was just named a captain and plays primarily as a center defensive midfielder and Carrion, who is mainly on the left wing, lead an all-junior midfield. Nicholas Bustios has a team-best six assists with one goal and right winger Wilberto Solorzano has three goals and four assists.

Another junior, Charlie Chabla, is a super-versatile midfielder, who comes off the bench and can line up at multiple spots. Senior Juan Sebastian Giraldo also sees time on the midfield.

Senior captain Josh Nodong starts at one center back spot alongside sophomore Jhon Mendez. A pair of juniors are on the ends with Raul Pineda at left back and Connor Egoavil at right back. Adrian Muniz, Ralby Nunez and Samuel Canaval also see time in the back.

In goal is senior captain Aiden Rodriguez, who after patiently waiting his turn as a backup, has recorded three shutouts.

“He could have started as a junior, but we had two experienced seniors ahead of him. He got minimal playing time because of that,” Polewka said. “He’s ready, he’s in a groove right now and he’s playing fantastic soccer.”

Freshman Nicholas Cooper is the backup.

Thanks to a 9-4-1 record, Belleville is currently fifth in power points in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 power point standings, putting it in position for a first round home game.

But perhaps even more important than its place in the standings is the knowledge Polewka’s group is playing its best soccer and will be well prepared for the final days of the season.

“I think we’ve reached our groove and are in our stride now,” Polewka said. “We’re playing extremely well out there. We have our starting 11 and our bench players that we go to when we need to. I think we’re ready for the home stretch.”

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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.)