It was taking two different football philosophies and two different teams and putting them together to form one larger team, going from two NJSIAA Group III programs to one Group IV team.
"We knew that there were going to be some bumps in the road," said Rotondi, who was the head coach at Union Hill for the last seven seasons before taking over the new merged squad. "We're still progressing. We're getting better, but we're still coming together a little. It's still a little bit touchy. We're doing things differently than what was done in the past and it's taking some time for some of the kids to understand that. Some kids get confused with the terminology and language. It's taking time."
But the Soaring Eagles (yes, the new nickname of Union City High School) don't have time to gradually get together. They kick off the 2008 season this weekend against Hunterdon Central, a perennially tough Group IV power from Hunterdon County in west-central New Jersey.
The dawning of the new era in Union City football is upon everyone and it's up to Rotondi to make sure that his team is ready for the new beginning.
"We're still getting a little of the confusion from what was done before and what's being done now," Rotondi said. "But we are getting better. I can see signs."
Senior Eddie Gonzalez (6-foot-0, 180 pounds), who was the starting quarterback last season for Emerson, gets the nod to call the shots this season for the Soaring Eagles.
"He's really coming along well," Rotondi said of Gonzalez. "It's obviously a whole new world for him, but he's getting better each day. He throws the ball well and has a good, strong arm."
The Soaring Eagles will utilize the Delaware Wing-T offense that Rotondi has been accustomed to since his days as an assistant at Hoboken High School. It means that all of the former Emerson players had to learn a totally new offensive scheme and formation.
But Steve Ulacia knows where he's supposed to be. Ulacia (5-9, 185), the former Union Hill All-Area running back, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and scored 14 touchdowns, will be the leader of the Soaring Eagles' offensive attack.
"We think he's going to rise to the occasion," Rotondi said of Ulacia. "He has great speed, a true 4.4 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. We need that. He has a shot to have a great season for us." Ulacia is also getting his fair share of looks from NCAA Division I-AA schools.
The other Eagle halfback is senior Willie Vanderhorst (5-8, 170), who has the ability to do a little bit of everything for the team.
"He's going to do our wingback stuff, like catch passes out of the backfield," Rotondi said. "He's a quality receiver and a quick kid. We have to get this kid the ball."
The fullback is senior Shaun Corriliza (5-10, 210), who is a converted halfback, but is adapting well.
Senior Jeremy Delgado (5-11, 175) is the starter at wide receiver. Senior Carlos Arias (5-11, 225) and junior Frank Vidal (5-11, 220) are sharing the duties at tight end.
The offensive line best personifies the merger of the two schools, with players from both Emerson and Union Hill getting together to form one solid line. If the Union City school district needs a shining example of what the merger has meant, it should look no further than this team's offensive line.
Senior Julio Yunes (6-3, 250) and sophomore Josue Matias (6-4, 270) are working at tackle, along with senior Nestor Saroza (6-1, 230).
Senior Hiram Diaz (6-1, 225), who has been a three-year starter during his career, is paired with senior Jesse Ortiz (6-2, 230) at guard. The center position is shared by senior Luis Diaz (5-10, 270, and no relation to Hiram) and junior Brian Fernandez (6-1, 225).
Having an expanded roster has enabled Rotondi to utilize almost a strictly two-platoon rotation.
"Only three guys turn around from offense and play defense," Rotondi said.
Ortiz is a starter at defensive tackle, with Hiram Diaz returning to his slot at defensive end where he played last year and Vanderhorst plays cornerback.
Seniors Joe Argueta (6-1, 225) and Manny Cabrera (6-1, 240) play defensive tackle. The linebackers are senior Jason Rivera (5-9, 200), who was a starter at Union Hill last fall, and sophomore Ed Ayala (6-0, 235), who has the potential to be as good as former Union Hill great Manny Abreu, currently starting at linebacker for Rutgers University.
"I would never compare anyone to Manny Abreu, but Ed has a chance to be a very good football player," Rotondi said. "He's already a beast and once he learns the game, he has a chance to be like anyone we've ever had."
The outside linebackers are senior Butch Yassari (5-9, 185) and senior Dilson Mercado (6-0, 185). Yassari started last season at linebacker for Emerson.
Senior Jose Matta (5-10, 170) and Vanderhorst are the cornerbacks, with senior Anthony Arias (6-1, 170) and junior Alex Vargas (5-10, 190) at the safety slots. Arias was having a very good season last year in the secondary for Union Hill, before he was lost for the season with a broken collarbone.
Rotondi knows that the pressure is on, that the Soaring Eagles are expected to soar right away. "Our goal is to make the state playoffs," Rotondi said. "If we play well from the start, we can take it from there. We have to see. We've had to deal with a lot of diversity, but we're coming together and that's the first start. We're still in two schools, coming from two different places [the new Union City High School will not open until next year], so we still have some constraints. It's not a smooth operation yet. Hopefully, we will be in a few weeks. We're moving toward that."
The prospects of the new program will be better examined after the results of the season opener against Hunterdon Central. - Jim Hague