A year ago, the Ferris High School football team was perhaps the biggest surprise in Hudson County, winning six games and qualifying for the NJSIAA state playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
The 6-4 record enabled young head coach Wilbur Valdez to earn the 2005 Hudson Reporter Coach of the Year honors, as the Bulldogs gave it their all in a tough 17-10 loss to perennial playoff qualifier Warren Hills in the North Jersey Section 1, Group III bracket.
"I think the season gave the entire program some credibility," said Valdez, the former Hoboken High School and University of Miami standout who begins his fourth season as a head coach this weekend when the Bulldogs face off with crosstown rival Snyder. "Not only because we won six games, but we beat a good Bayonne team that turned our season around. We hung in there against the best teams in the county. I think we were able to take the program to new heights and gained some respect. We turned the program around pretty quickly. Now, this is my fourth year, and the kids I started with are seniors now. These are my kids. They know me and my philosophy."
However, as the Bulldogs prepare for the kickoff of the new season, they will be missing three key ingredients to last year's breakthrough season - namely running backs Ramir Henry and Shyheem Anderson and two-way lineman Nate Dennis.
All three are currently playing college football (Henry at Cheyney University, Dennis and Anderson at Hudson Valley Community College) and helped to bring Ferris back to respectability.
"Ramir Henry was definitely the heart and soul of this team," Valdez said. "It's not going to be easy replacing those kids. They carried the torch for this program and now they had to pass the torch to the returning players. We do return a lot of players from last year and now these kids know what to expect because of what the seniors did last year. We had kids graduating and taking their games to college. That doesn't happen often. That's called taking it to the next level."
While the Bulldogs are missing some key personnel from the most successful grid team Ferris has fielded in 15 years, Valdez quickly points out that the cupboard isn't exactly bare.
"We do have the same intensity that we had last year, but now, because of the success we had last year, we have more kids who came out for football," Valdez said. "We have some depth and we have kids who can play. We actually have a third team for practice and that's a good problem to have. We have a nice blend of youth and experience."
Leading the way is senior quarterback Jameal Powell (6-0, 190), who didn't play last year because of disciplinary reasons. Valdez removed Powell from the team in July of 2005 and was only reinstated after asking to return.
"He came back with a new attitude and a new way of looking at things," Valdez said of the speedy Powell. "He has developed into a quiet leader and he works very hard."
Senior Davon Shaw (5-10, 175) is the lone returnee from the Bulldogs' backfield of a season ago. Shaw has blazing speed and breakaway ability.
"The kid can fly," Valdez said. "He's as fast as they come. I definitely hope that he can pick it up where Ramir left off. He definitely has the heart and desire to do so."
The Bulldogs have a host of others, some seven in all, that could actually see time in the backfield this season.
"They're all going to get a chance to carry the ball," Valdez promised. "I want to keep them fresh. They're all fast and all learning."
Seniors Troy Jackson (5-7, 160) and Rajon Martinez (6-0, 170) and a quintet of sophomores, namely Rasheed Jackson (5-8, 170 and no relation to Troy), Chris Torres (5-6, 155), Corey Cottle (5-9, 170), Isiah Dixon (5-10, 180) and Mark Hill (5-9, 180) will all get carries out of the backfield. There aren't many teams in Hudson County who can lay claim to having eight capable running backs.
The Bulldogs' wide receiver has a ton of promise. Senior Manny Ahamafule (6-5, 195) has a ton of talent and now has a pretty good tutor in former Hoboken, University of Florida and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Carlos Perez, now an assistant at Ferris.
"Carlos and Manny hit it off right away and they've been inseparable," Valdez said. "They sit and watch tapes together. It's great to see. Manny's going to have a great year."
The offensive line is very experienced, with senior center Chris Perez (5-9, 240), senior tight end Joelle Jest (6-2, 260), and junior guards Sean Bazemore (5-9, 180) and Armando Figueroa (5-9, 210) and junior tackle Brent Rice (6-2, 250) all returning. Only junior Luis Cacedes (6-3, 270) is a newcomer. This is Cacades' first year of playing high school football.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will go with Ahamafule and Dixon at defensive end, with Jest and Myron Glover, a 5-10, 235-pound sophomore and the nephew of College Football Hall of Famer Rich Glover, at tackles.
Shaw is one of the linebackers, along with Martinez and Bazemore, but look out for sophomore Marlon Carpenter (5-10, 180) and freshman Brian Worts (6-0, 185) in the mix.
Powell and Troy Jackson are at cornerback, but senior Brandon Washington (5-10, 175) will see time there as well. Senior Brandon Spann (5-10, 170) will play safety along with Cottle and Hill.
So the ingredients are there for another successful season for the Ferris football program.
"I think we have to set the standards for the Jersey City public schools," Valdez said. "We're really excited about our first game against Snyder and we know we have to get off to a good start."
If the Bulldogs do, then a return trip to the state playoffs is not out of the question.