The 2012 boys’ high school soccer season was moving in the right direction for the Tigers of Memorial High School. After somewhat of a slow start, the Tigers found a second wind come October and began to play solid soccer.
“The team was playing together toward the end of the season,” said veteran Memorial boys’ head soccer coach Albert de los Reyes. “We had enough confidence. We were doing better.”
In the final match of the regular season, disaster struck. The Tigers played in an emotionally volatile contest against Dickinson, a match where the emotions overflowed. A physical altercation took place between the two teams and the game officials deemed that more than three Tigers had to be ejected from the game.
The NJSIAA has a strict rule regarding ejections. If any team in any sport suffers three ejections during the course of a season, that team is then automatically disqualified for the state tournament.
Just like that, the Tigers were out of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs. One game, one unfortunate incident and the Tigers were done.
Right after that game with Dickinson, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area, cancelling most of the action, including the remainder of the Tigers’ games. The season was over.
“You learn from the mistakes you make in life,” de los Reyes said. “The season ended. We earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and that event occurred. It was a tough time for us. All the hard work we put in came to an end. We had to look forward. I felt bad for the seniors, because their careers were over. But we had a lot of juniors, some fundamental key players coming back.”
So when practice began in earnest in August, the Tigers had to make sure that they made amends for their costly mistake at the end of last season.
“We had to come back strong,” de los Reyes said. “We knew that we had to play hard from the get-go. We had to look at things in a different way and leave what happened last year behind. We had to look forward. When we met in the summer, we said that we had the potential to do well this year. It was a matter of staying together and picking up where we left off.”
De Los Reyes knew that there was going to be an added fire in his team.
“There’s no question that there was motivation,” de los Reyes said. “If we looked back, we couldn’t change things. But if we looked forward, we had the potential to come back strong.”
The Tigers had some rocky moments early in the 2013 season, like a one-sided loss to the county’s premier team St. Peter’s Prep.
But last week, the Tigers showed major signs that they were going to be ready for this year’s state tourney, poised to make up for what took place last year.
Last week, the Tigers knocked off state-ranked power Kearny, 3-1, and then defeated another solid program in West Orange, 1-0, in double overtime, giving the Tigers three straight wins and four of their last five.
The win over Kearny was a huge step. It’s not known the last time when Memorial defeated the perennial state power, a place with the impressive nickname of “Soccertown, USA.”
“It had been a long time,” de los Reyes said. “But we dominated the game. We had control from the start. Offensively, defensively, we did it all. We never allowed Kearny to play the way they’re used to playing.”
The Tigers then knocked off West Orange in double overtime, playing a crisp, clean, yet physical game.
“West Orange always has a good team,” de los Reyes said. “It was a big win for us.”
The biggest win came Wednesday night, when the Tigers upended the county’s top team, St. Peter’s Prep, 4-3, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to do so and avenging the loss earlier in the season. It gave the Tigers two wins over two state ranked teams in span of a week.
The victory enabled the Tigers to push their seasonal record to 9-4 and has enabled the Tigers to currently hold the No. 2 seed in the North 1, Group IV section – the same spot they held last year before the fight with Dickinson.
“The guys are getting it together,” de los Reyes said. “They have some momentum going. They also have matured enough to understand that they can’t have something like that happen again. They’ve worked hard to get to this point. They’ve learned their lesson. I can see the difference. We’re enjoying this.”
Leading the returnees is senior goalkeeper Mark Geron, who has manned the Tigers’ net for the last three seasons.
“He’s been with us for a while,” de los Reyes said of Geron.
The Tigers’ sweeper is senior Cristian Chiriboga.
“He’s accomplishing a lot, addressing the team like a true leader,” de los Reyes said of Chiribosa. “He has a lot of skill.”
The stopper is junior Jesse Cabrera, with seniors Ioan Espinosa and Edgar Morantes at the other two defenders. Morantes was injured and missed all of last season.
The center midfielder is senior Fabio Cuniga, who is the one who keeps the offense flowing.
“He’s a great ball distributor,” de los Reyes said.
Notice the amount of seniors on this roster. These kids certainly remember the sting from last year.
Junior Josue Herrera is the other center midfielder.
“He’s a good disciplined player,” de los Reyes said of Herrera.
Senior Brandon Cruz is an offensive minded midfielder and sophomore Victor Vasquez rounds out the starting midfield.
Senior Oscar Nunez heads the forward line. Nunez has scored nine goals already this season, including three goals in the win over the Marauders. Nunez also scored a goal against Kearny and had the team’s lone tally in the win over West Orange.
“He’s a good finisher,” de los Reyes said. “Oscar has the experience upfront and has played on a lot of other teams and done well. He finished with 15 goals last year and he should do better this year. He’s a key player to our offense.”
Junior Gian Garcia is the other starter on the front line.
“Gian has really improved a lot,” de los Reyes said.
Key reserves include senior defender Elvis Estrada and junior midfielder Christopher Arguello.
Needless to say, de los Reyes is pleased with the state of his program.
“I like the way we’re playing right now,” de los Reyes said. “We have the potential to exceed what we’ve done in the past. We knew we had a rough time last season, but we’re doing the best we can right now. We play a tough schedule and we know that no one is going to give us anything for free. We have to face all the battles.”
And the Tigers know they cannot handle a disastrous mistake like they endured last year. They have already proven to be a serious threat in the Hudson County Tournament (the Tigers face Bayonne this weekend) and later the NJSIAA state tournament they were prohibited from participating in a year ago.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.