Before the 2012 high school soccer season was set to begin, St. Peter’s Prep suffered a huge blow when high-scoring forward Ajani Phillips decided he would play for a respected soccer academy instead of the Marauders.
It was a big blow, considering that Phillips was one of the premier strikers in northern New Jersey.
“I had discussions with Ajani and he admitted that he missed it,” said Prep head soccer coach Josh Jantas. “He was at about 15 of our games. I could tell that he was missing it.”
So last spring, Phillips made his decision to return to the Marauders.
“Ajani could play for any academy in the state, but he wanted to come back,” Jantas said. “Just having that year away made him realize how much he wanted to be here. So many Prep soccer players graduate and they come back, wishing they had one more year. Well, Ajani is getting that one year.”
Now a senior, Phillips may be enjoying his finest fall of all. He’s already scored 14 goals and collected eight assists in the Marauders’ first 11 games. In those games, the Marauders own a 10-0-1 record, earning them a No. 9 ranking in the entire state, the best state ranking for a Prep soccer team ever.
A lot of the credit should go to the return of Phillips.
“He’s matured a lot,” Jantas said. “He’s still very quiet, but we’re very lucky to have him back. He has a natural drive to get better, whether he is here or anywhere.”
Phillips has been receiving a fair share of college interest, from schools like Temple and Manhattan, but he should field more offers before the season is over. He’s that talented.
“He’s one of the best all-around players in New Jersey,” Jantas said of Phillips.
Jantas said that he thought the Marauders’ attack would be a force this season.
“I expected our offensive attack to be dangerous,” said Jantas, now in his sixth season with the Marauders. “We have two other players with double-digit goals.”
Another top goal scorer is senior center midfielder Juan Gomez, who has 11 goals and 13 assists this season, after tallying four goals and eight assists last year.
The other top goal scorer is sophomore forward Freddie Guacamaya, who has compiled 10 goals and five assists thus far.
“We have good offensive players,” Jantas said. “We believe our offense flows through the midfield.”
The Marauders’ goalkeeper is sophomore Juan Alcantara, who has posted an astounding eight shutouts in the first 11 games.
“He’s played really well,” said Jantas of Alcantara, who has allowed just two goals all season. “We had a tough battle for the goalkeeping job in preseason and Juan edged it out. He’s been able to grow into the role.”
Senior Rob Cordeiro is the lone returning starter on the backline.
“We’re lucky to have backs who are very dependable,” Jantas said. “They’re very athletic. Rob is very quick and he’s able to catch opposing forwards to the ball. He has tremendous speed. It’s good to have him back there.”
The other defenders are senior Jack Szumski and junior Kyle Krutis. Neither were members of the Prep varsity last year.
“We were concerned about the back, because we didn’t know who those people were going to be,” Jantas said. “But these guys have come through.”
Junior Scott Rogers is more of a defensive-minded midfielder.
“He covers a lot of ground,” Jantas said. “All of them play well with their feet and we believe that they are the first line of our attack.”
Gomez is a force in the midfield, along with senior Bryan Valencia, who has one goal and five assists, but plays a key role getting the Marauders going.
Other midfielders include junior Hayden Criollo and sophomore Dom Acevedo. Both players have scored two goals each this season.
Up front, the Marauders are set with Phillips and Guacamaya, although junior Nolan Collier is a top reserve. Collier already has four goals off the bench this season.
Senior Matt Leonard is a versatile player who is a reserve.
“He can play anywhere,” Jantas said of Leonard.
Jantas knows that there can only be two goals moving forward – county and state championships. The Marauders won top honors in the county with Phillips in 2011 and lost last year in the county finale to Kearny. They should be among the teams to beat in the NJSIAA Non-Public A North playoffs later this month.
“Those have been our goals since the beginning of the season,” Jantas said. “And those are realistic goals. It’s going to be tough, but it’s where we want to be. Every game, we have a chance to score with Ajani and Juan. It gives you a real sense to win when the attack is dangerous like they are.”
The Marauders have certainly been lethal through 11 games, tying only Kearny. They need to continue to win in order to secure the top seed in the upcoming Hudson County Tournament.
But there’s no question that the stakes have been raised, both now with Phillips back and now with the state ranking. It should be interesting to see how things unfold for the Marauders.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.