The Soaring Eagles advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V state championship game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford before falling to Montclair, 35-14, in the title game.
It marked the first time in seven previous state playoff appearances that the Soaring Eagles made it all the way to the Mecca of New Jersey football, namely MetLife.
“I think we’ve been pretty consistent,” said veteran Union City head coach Wilber Valdez. “We are usually in the state playoffs and reach the semifinals. I think we always have a hungry bunch. I think this time it was a good experience to get there [to the finals]. But it’s not the ultimate goal, just to get there. We want to win once we get there. But all in all, you can chalk it up to a good experience.”
As the 2018 season approaches next weekend, Valdez has an experienced team that just might challenge for another trip to the Meadowlands.
“I think we have a nice, experienced team,” Valdez said. “To be honest with you, we have been doing business as usual since we got into the weight room in January. We assess our goals in January. And right now, we’re not looking back. We’re focused on 2018. I’m certainly proud of the energy and the hustle the kids have shown, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Where the Soaring Eagles need no help is at quarterback. Senior Alain Diaz (6-1, 195) returns to his starting slot as the Soaring Eagles’ signal caller.
“He’s certainly a better quarterback than he was last year,” Valdez said. “[Former Lincoln High School standout and current Union City assistant coach] Lamar McKnight works well with Alain and has helped him improve. I think Alain wants to be good. Skill-wise, he’s a better player. But we want him to become the leader of the team and that’s what we’re working on.”
Senior fullback Jean Alvarez (5-10, 220) also returns. Alvarez, a former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week, rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year for a team that finished 8-4.
“Jean exploded onto the scene last year,” Valdez said. “He was especially good toward the end of the season and put some solid games together. He just needs to get in the flow of the offense.”
The halfback position is up for grabs, with a host of players vying for playing time.
Junior Devin Gonzalez (5-7, 180) is one of those contending for a starting position.
“He’s an explosive back,” Valdez said of Gonzalez, who started 10 games last year. “He’s gotten a little bigger and stronger. He can become our go-to guy.”
Seniors Joel Jimenez (5-9, 170) and Tyheem Black (5-8, 190) are also battling for playing time. Black was a player at St. Anthony two years ago and was at Snyder last year, so he’s well traveled.
The player to watch in the Soaring Eagles’ backfield is talented sophomore Glaser Arias (5-10, 180).
“He is something,” Valdez said of Arias. “He’s shown a lot of promise.”
Another fullback is junior Abdiel Ramos (5-8, 195).
The receiving corps is also talented, led by junior Yerandi Berroa (6-2, 175) and returning senior slot man Jeremy Colon (5-9, 170).
Three people are vying for time at tight end, led by returning senior starter Jaime Rodriguez (6-0, 225), although seniors William Ruiz (6-0, 210) and Neurys Ortiz (5-10, 215) are in the mix.
The offensive line features returning starters Eddy Coronado (5-10, 255) and Zavien Guitian (6-0, 260) at guard and center respectively. Senior Justin Rodriguez (6-1, 270) and juniors Jalen Genao (6-0, 270) and Eneurys Rosario (6-0, 260) are all battling for playing time at tackle. Senior Ariel Higuera (5-10, 250) is the bookend guard to Coronado.
The Soaring Eagles play a 4-3 defensive front, with senior Charles Gaston (6-0, 220) the player to watch at defensive end. Gaston was a standout linebacker as a sophomore, but missed all of last season due to a knee injury. But Gaston has recovered and he’s back to cause havoc on the Soaring Eagles’ defensive line. Jaime Rodriguez is another defensive end.
Coronado, who had a monster game against Montclair in the state final last December, returns to his defensive tackle slot. He’s joined there by a host of others like Guitian, Rosario and Genao.
The outside linebackers are Alvarez along with senior Camilo Giraldo (5-10, 185) and junior Geraldo Rovelo (5-9, 180).
Neurys Ortiz is the middle linebacker, but Abdiel Ramos gets time there as well.
The cornerbacks are senior Elijah Sparkman (5-11, 170), who started last season, and junior Henry Vilomar (5-9, 165). Junior Jared Montoya (5-8, 165) is getting time at cornerback along with Jeremy Colon.
The strong safety slot is a battle between senior John McCray (5-10, 170), junior Joshua Negron (5-11, 180) and Arias, with Jimenez at free safety.
The Soaring Eagles open their 2018 season Friday night against Passaic up on the roof of the high school, the new Roosevelt Stadium, at 7 p.m.
If the Soaring Eagles are going to perform at a high level this season, they will need big years from Diaz, Alvarez and Gaston.
“Obviously, they’re the ones we’re looking to,” Valdez said. “They’re the ones with experience. They’ve been there and done it. Everything they do reflects on what kind of team we have. I think Charles is a true leader. He works hard every day and sets the tone for everyone in the locker room.”
The Soaring Eagles should still be playing for something come mid November. – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.