It's safe to say that the athletic program at New Jersey City University hasn't had a lot to be proud of lately.
First, the school dropped its troubled football program. Then, the school announced that it was cutting its long-term ties with the New Jersey Athletic Conference for all sports. Those were severe blows to the stability of the NJCU athletic program. One negative blow after another.
However, the men's soccer team at NJCU is making a lot of people forget about the school's troubles.
The Gothic Knights are currently enjoying the best season in school's history, posting a 7-1-2 record thus far, good for a No. 15 ranking among NCAA Division III college soccer programs in the entire nation.
Under the tutelage of sixth-year head coach Kevin East, the Gothic Knights are undefeated in their last nine games, including a 1-0 shutout of perennial NJAC power Kean on Wednesday. It marked only the second time in the school's history that the Gothic Knights defeated Kean.
The No. 15 national ranking is the highest place that the NJCU men's soccer program has ever enjoyed. The Gothic Knights are also ranked No. 2 in the Metro region, trailing just perennial NJAC power Montclair State.
"We're happy about it because we're still a very young team," East said. "It's a nice thing to be nationally ranked, but we don't want to get caught up in the rankings. The players have done a nice job. Getting recognition like this is always good."
It's especially gratifying because the Gothic Knights are utilizing a starting lineup that features three freshmen and five sophomores.
"It was definitely one of our strongest recruiting classes," East said. "I'm very pleased with the way they've come together. It's a complete group, perhaps the closest, tightest group that we've ever had. They're willing to fight for each other and they're real enjoyable to coach."
East said that many of the newcomers got a head start on the season by playing for a club team called the Ironbound Sport Club, based out of Newark, during the summer in the highly competitive Super Y League. The Ironbound Sport Club went to the national tournament in each of the last two seasons.
"These guys got to know each other all year and that was a major plus," said East.
One of the standouts of that Newark-based team was forward Pedro Prior, a former Hudson Catholic product who has become a sure-fire scorer for the Gothic Knights as a freshman.
Prior recently had a streak where he scored at least one goal in six straight matches. He has eight goals and one assist for the season, incredible totals for a freshman.
"I still think we're considered underdogs, because we have so many unsung players," Prior said. "I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage, because no one knows much about us."
Prior was asked about the national ranking.
"In some ways, it is surprising, but in other ways, we feel we deserve to be where we are," Prior said. "But it's a real reason to make us all proud."
East said that he doesn't feel like the soccer team is carrying the banner for the entire school, especially after the demise of the football program earlier this year.
"We're not flying the flag for the entire department," East said. "I think it's shown that we can compete in the NJAC, like we have been able to do for the last couple of years."
However, Prior understands the importance of the Gothic Knights' fine run thusfar.
"I feel like we have to meet expectations, because we're representing the whole school," Prior said. "I think we're giving the school more hope and making things more exciting. We're putting more spirit into the school. I think knowing that we represent the whole school fuels our fire a little bit. It gives us all something to be proud of. We just have to keep it going."
The Gothic Knights certainly have a Hudson County flavor, with four players from Dickinson on the roster, including senior midfielder and captain Jonathan Escobar, one of the better all-around performers in the NJAC. Freshmen Ramon Almendarez is a starter at sweeper, while junior forward and fellow captain Adrian Ruiz is a reserve, but sees a lot of action and scored the game-winning goal against Kean on Wednesday. Ruiz has scored three goals already this season.
"Dickinson High School has been very good to us," East said. "Jonathan is a good leader and a hard worker. Every time he steps on the field, he gives us 100 percent. Ramon has stepped in at sweeper and is playing like a senior. Ruiz comes off the bench and gives us a boost every time he plays. They're doing well."
Bruce Neves, a three-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection as a goalkeeper for Hudson Catholic, was a regular in goal for the Gothic Knights as a freshman, but he suffered a broken wrist in training a few weeks ago and has been out of action.
"There's a lot of talent in Hudson County," East said. "My first goal when I took the job six years ago was to try to pull in the local talent. I'm really pleased with the group of kids we have."
East knows one thing. The national ranking, the win over Kean and the unbeaten streaks are nice, but it's still September and there is a lot of season left to be played.
"We have to keep it up," East said. "We have a good stretch of matches coming up against conference teams. That will be the real test. The kids haven't been overwhelmed by the ranking. I don't think they really understand how important it is. To them, it's just another day on the field. So far, it's been a good publicity thing, but we have only played two conference games. Those are the ones that make or break you."
Chances are that the Gothic Knights will be making more than breaking for the rest of the season. - Jim Hague