The Memorial High School football program took gigantic strides in 2011, when the Tigers won five games and qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Now, it’s up to Memorial alumnus and head coach Oscar Guerrero to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke or a simple flash in the pan.
“Honestly, we accomplished a lot last year,” said Guerrero, who begins his third season as the head coach of his alma mater. “We got a taste of what it was like to play in the playoffs. We were able to compete and beat some good teams. We made the step up.”
The Tigers did manage to defeat local rivals St. Anthony and Hoboken last season, enabling them to earn enough power points for a state playoff appearance. The Tigers also hung tough with neighboring rival Union City, which went on to play in the sectional semifinals before losing to eventual champion North Bergen in overtime.
“We made ourselves accountable,” Guerrero said. “We made the playoffs, but that has to be the goal every year. I think the kids realize that. We’re young and we’ve had some injuries in the preseason. We did graduate 17 seniors from last year. It’s all about getting these kids some experience and confidence. The ones, who are back, benefitted from what we did last year. They learned what it was like to be on a winner. They have to share that with the others and that should help us.”
Guerrero said that the Tigers have been competitive in the preseason.
“We’re still learning, but I’ve seen some positive signs,” Guerrero said. “I’m eager to see them on the field. We’ve started from scratch in some areas, but we have a lot of things to be excited about.”
One of those things is diminutive junior quarterback Bobby Bailey (5-6, 180), who stepped in as the starter after the original starter got hurt in the second week of the season and never relinquished the position.
“He’s one of our strongest kids,” Guerrero said of Bailey. “He led us to some quality wins last year. He got thrown into the fire and handled himself well. A kid with a weak character could have easily crumbled under that pressure, but Bobby handled it well and did a great job.”
Junior James Hernandez (5-7, 180) is one of the running backs in a young backfield that features no seniors. Hernandez saw limited action last year.
Sophomore Arithe Fernandez (5-9, 175) is also in the backfield, but the player to watch is freshman Ricardo Azucar (5-10, 180).
“I’m really excited about him,” Guerrero said.
Junior Jimmy Rodriguez (6-3, 195), the baseball star, is a returning starter at wide receiver.
“He’s just a very good athlete,” Guerrero said.
The other wide receiver is junior returnee Jose Ortez (5-8, 170), who made some superb catches last year for the Tigers in their state playoff run.
“He’s a tough kid with good hands,” Guerrero said of Ortez.
The other wide receiver to see playing time is junior Mike Gonzalez (5-9, 175).
Junior Ruben Rivera (5-10, 215), another baseball standout, is the tight end. Rivera was once a guard, but has been moved to tight end to best utilize his athletic prowess.
The offensive line is comprised entirely of newcomers.
“It’s a group that has to go through some growing pains,” Guerrero said. “They’ll come along and the team will follow. Once they get experience, they’ll be fine. I’m excited about them. I look forward to the challenge of coaching the line and watching them develop.”
The tackles are John Paul Bueno (6-3, 260) and Yordy Fernandez (6-1, 230). The guards are Elijah Azucar (6-0, 225), the older brother of Ricardo, and Carlos Moreno (6-0, 215) and the center is Harold Berrio (5-11, 205). One thing that has to please and worry Guerrero at the same time: They’re all juniors.
“But there’s room for growth,” Guerrero said.
Defensively, Rivera and junior Jonathan Ramirez (6-0, 195) are the ends, with Moreno and Elijah Azucar at defensive tackle.
The linebacker corps features Arithe Fernandez, James Hernandez, Rodriguez and Berrio.
Senior Derek Joselen (5-9, 165) is one of the cornerback, along with Ortez. Bailey is the safety.
The Tigers don’t have it easy to open the season, facing Hoboken and then St. Peter’s Prep in the first two games.
“We’re talking about two of the best programs in the county,” Guerrero said. “We’re looking forward to it. We’re concentrating right now solely on Hoboken and they’re going to be ready for us, because we beat them last year.”
So how does Guerrero feel about his team?
“I think we’re definitely stronger at the skilled positions,” Guerrero said. “We have more experience there. As long as the group up front can block, we’ll be okay. We have a strong junior class with 22 juniors. We have a lot of room for improvement. But we’re looking to grow on what we did last year.”
It’s safe to say that everyone has to take the wait-and-see approach with the Tigers. –
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.