Alberto De Los Reyes believes that he first started to realize that his Memorial High School soccer team was going to be something special when the Tigers finished the season a year ago.
"We finished the year 8-4-2 and we went to the semifinals of the HCIAA," said De Los Reyes, who began his fifth season as the head coach of the Tigers this fall. "But we had the entire team coming back. Most of the players were either sophomores or juniors last year. We had something building over the last two years. We were looking forward to things changing in our favor at the end of the season."
So the Tigers got ready for the 2006 campaign by competing in the highly competitive Kearny summer league. Throughout the summer months, the Tigers lost only once - to perennial state power Kearny.
"I started noticing then that this team was maturing," De Los Reyes said. "We were developing as a team. I had a sense it was coming about."
It made De Los Reyes' job a little easier in the preseason.
"I had some freshmen coming in and they were developing," De Los Reyes said. "I wanted to see if they could play with the varsity right away, to see if they had the talent right away. Having the team we had gave the freshmen the chance."
So De Los Reyes had the ingredients of a special club; a balance of young talent and returning upperclassmen. It had the makings of being the best soccer season that the West New York school has enjoyed in decades.
In a league like the HCIAA, where the soccer has been dominated by schools like Emerson and St. Peter's Prep for what seems like forever, the time had come for a changing of the guard.
And the Tigers of Memorial, with the optimistic head coach and the dutiful kids who had paid their dues, progressing from year to year, were poised to be the ones to take over the premier position in the league.
The wins started to pile up. The Tigers first beat defending HCIAA champion St. Peter's Prep, then North Bergen, then Bayonne, then Ferris. They started to believe in themselves.
But when the Tigers finally knocked off perennial power Emerson - who played the Tigers to a tie earlier in the year - by the score of 2-1 Tuesday night in a driving rainstorm, the Tigers had reached the pinnacle. With an 11-1-1 record, they're clearly the best team in the HCIAA this year. Albeit surprising to some, except the ones wearing the orange and black, the balance of power has definitely shifted in the HCIAA soccer race.
As the HCIAA playoffs rapidly approach in a few weeks, the Tigers are definitely now the team to beat. The regular season title is just about clinched, which means the top seed for the always competitive and cut-throat playoffs.
"Every team has a chance," De Los Reyes said. "It could be anyone's championship. All the teams are competitive. All the games are competitive."
But there's only one team that has been winning virtually all of their matches and that's Memorial.
"I think we're gaining a little bit of respect from the other teams," De Los Reyes said. "We already respect all of our opponents."
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Tigers have been so dominant this season has been the play of their powerful 1-2 punch along the forward line. Senior Adrian M. Lagos, who has been starting on the Memorial varsity since he was a freshman, has scored 23 goals. Fellow senior Innocent Buule has 16 goals. There isn't another team around with that kind of offensive explosiveness from their forward line. The Tigers are also deep and talented along the backline as well. Junior John Londono is a solid goalkeeper.
"He's a very compacted player and very focused," De Los Reyes said of Londono.
Senior Esteban Capocucchi is the team's sweeper.
"He's done a phenomenal job back there," De Los Reyes said.
Senior Brian Garcia is the team's stopper.
"I feel very good with those three kids back there," De Los Reyes said. "They are really doing their jobs well and are playing well."
Senior Johnny Aguilar and sophomore Edwin Amaya are the other two starting defenders for the Tigers.
The midfield features senior Andreas DeCastro and three juniors, Juan Ramirez, Luigi Juarez and Josue Hernandez.
Hernandez is the team's playmaker at center midfield and has collected 11 assists. Ramirez has eight assists.
When the two goal-scoring studs up front need a breather, then De Los Reyes can turn to two talented freshmen, Fernando Alvarez and Orlando Benitez, both of whom have scored three goals in their playing time off the bench.
So the pieces are in place and the results are happening. This is shaping up into becoming a very memorable soccer season at Memorial. It was a few years in the making, but now, it's here. And the Tigers are clearly the team to beat as the soccer season winds down.
"They feel that they're doing something special for themselves," De Los Reyes said. "They know that they can take it further. The focus has been to get to the top."
The Tigers are definitely at the top right now. Whether they remain there when the playoffs end is another story. But there's been a changing of the guard in HCIAA soccer. The time has come to recognize the achievements of the Memorial High School soccer team. They truly have become the cream of the crop in the HCIAA this year.