Having faced North Bergen four times already in his three-year varsity football career, Isaiah Diaz-Mays knew what to expect when his Union City Soaring Eagles squared off against the Bruins once again last week in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V state playoffs.
“This time, it was very different,” said Diaz-Mays, the Soaring Eagles’ senior quarterback. “They eliminated us from the playoffs last year and we were reminded that we were just 18 yards away from the state championship game.”
A year ago, North Bergen defeated Union City, 10-7, in overtime, a game that sent the Bruins to MetLife Stadium and the state title game and sent the Soaring Eagles home for the winter.
“For our returning players, we didn’t forget that feeling,” Diaz-Mays said. “But we didn’t want to dwell on what happened last year. The way I looked at it, North Bergen was just in the way. What happened last year was in the past. This was a totally different year.”
Union City head coach Wilber Valdez pulled his quarterback aside before the game and told Diaz-Mays that he needed a big-time performance from his big-time signal caller.
“Absolutely, I told him it was now crunch time,” Valdez said. “He needed to step up. He’s been leading us for three years now. In the middle of this season, we changed things up a little to feature Isaiah keeping the ball more. Ideally, you don’t want your quarterback carrying the ball so much, but he’s the best athlete on the field for us and we needed him to be the one with the ball in his hands. He’s the best guy we have to lead us.”
Diaz-Mays doesn’t mind having that responsibility.
“I like the idea that I’m the quarterback and I’m the playmaker,” Diaz-Mays said. “The offense is designed the way it is and I’m a guy who can run.”
The offense was geared more toward running backs when the season began, but when the Soaring Eagles lost senior Nick Espana to injury, Valdez shifted the focus of the running attack to senior Rafael Colindres and Diaz-Mays.
“He really responded well to it,” Valdez said. “In fact, I think the team rallied around it.”
So Diaz-Mays called his own number a little more and kept the ball.
All totaled, Diaz-Mays carried the ball 21 times for 168 yards and scored two touchdowns. He also completed a 50-yard touchdown pass to Colindres, leading the Soaring Eagles to a 35-20 victory over rival North Bergen, enabling the Soaring Eagles to advance to the sectional semifinals next weekend against Bloomfield.
For his efforts, Diaz-Mays has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Diaz-Mays just had a good feeling about his team’s chances this time they faced the Bruins. They defeated North Bergen, 33-27, earlier in the season and Mays had a fine game that day as well.
“I just had a different vibe about this one,” Diaz-Mays said. “I just knew it wasn’t going to happen again. This one meant everything to me. It’s my senior year and it’s my goal to play for a championship. I want to have the people from the school, even people who graduated to come to watch us play.”
Diaz-Mays has now rushed for 300 yards on 30 carries and scored four touchdowns in the last two weeks in wins over local rivals Hoboken and North Bergen.
“A lot of the credit goes to the big boys up front creating space for him,” Valdez said. “He got that yardage the last two weeks against two very good defenses. But he’s a special kind of player in the open field. He has the speed to run away from people and he’s proven that many times over his career.”
Diaz-Mays had a 300-yard rushing game last year, an utter rarity for a quarterback.
“He also has the ability to make the big throw,” Valdez said.
Diaz-Mays’ ability to both run and pass reminds a lot of people of another great local quarterback who did both – someone who Valdez knows personally, because he played at Hoboken with Rashard Casey, the former Red Wing standout signal caller who went on to play at Penn State.
Casey, who is a former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year during his high school days, paid a visit to the Soaring Eagles and Diaz-Mays last week as a favor to his former teammate.
“He was on our sideline and in our locker room,” Valdez said of Casey. “He thinks that Isaiah is that special kind of player.”
Diaz-Mays has received a handful of offers from some schools such as Northern Michigan, Towson and James Madison.
“I’m very confident I can handle that level,” Diaz-Mays said.
But Valdez said he might consider opening up Diaz-Mays’ recruiting process again, showcasing him as more of an overall athlete and not just a quarterback.
“He can play other positions,” Valdez said. “He’s an athlete that can perhaps play defense or wide receiver. He can catch the ball. Maybe he can spark some interest that way. I certainly know he’ll be a serviceable player anywhere. He’s just that talented. I still think he can play quarterback on the next level. We have to see what the recruiting guys think. But as he’s proven, he’s more than just a quarterback.”
Diaz-Mays is just thankful that his high school career is still flourishing.
“It’s a great feeling,” Diaz-Mays. “I definitely felt that was my best game so far, but I have others. It was my last home game and the last time I played North Bergen, so it’s a great feeling to know I can have that kind of game when it counts the most.”
Bloomfield is the only obstacle between Diaz-Mays, the Soaring Eagles and a trip to MetLife Stadium and the Group V state title game – the chance to win a state title that eluded the Soaring Eagles a year ago. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.