Wilber Valdez knows how close his Union City High School football team came last season to playing for a state title.
It was a matter of inches, not yards; a matter of seconds, not minutes.
The Soaring Eagles lost 10-7 in overtime to neighboring rival North Bergen in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinals last November, a tough, hard-hitting game where it was a shame one team had to lose. The Bruins went on to the Meadowlands and won the state title. The Soaring Eagles were left to enjoy an 8-3 record and wonder what might have been.
“It was an outstanding accomplishment,” Valdez said. “But it’s tough when you work so hard and get so close. So we definitely don’t want to put that behind us. We feel like we have some unfinished business this year. We can use last year as a comparison and as a reminder that we have to work harder and do things differently to get over the hump.”
Valdez likes the makeup of his team.
“We have the perfect combination of experience and youth,” said Valdez, who begins his third season as the head coach of the Soaring Eagles. “We have a good balance. The experienced guys give us an advantage and a big lift.”
One of the most experienced members of the Soaring Eagles’ roster is senior quarterback Isaiah Diaz-Mays, formerly known as Isaiah Moreira. Diaz-Mays (6-3, 185) is a multi-talented quarterback who rushed for almost 900 yards (including a 305-yard, four-touchdown game in a win over Kearny) and passed for 900.yards.
“He’s always had a good arm,” Valdez said of Diaz-Mays, who is getting some college looks from schools like James Madison and Old Dominion. “He does a good job of keeping his eyes down the field. He definitely can make plays.”
Also returning is senior fullback Nick Espana (5-9, 205), who rushed for 600 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“He’s not a big, bulky kid, but he has that explosiveness,” Valdez said. “He can move the pile as well, because he’s that strong, but he can also run away.”
Also in the Union City backfield is sophomore Tamaine Boyd (5-11, 225), who has shown a ton of promise.
“He’s going to be really good,” Valdez said of Boyd.
Senior Rafael Colindres (5-8, 170) is another returnee at halfback.
“He brings a lot of experience and he is probably our fastest player,” Valdez said of Colindres. “He has done a nice job of catching the ball out of the backfield.”
The Soaring Eagles have depth at wingback, with senior Lorenzo Rodriguez (5-9, 170), junior Owen Roman (5-9, 170) and sophomore Nawell Rojas (5-10, 180) sharing time.
Valdez will shuttle in three players at wide receiver, namely senior Manny Perez (6-0, 170), junior Jose Sanchez (5-7, 160) and sophomore Jonathan Castellano (5-11, 170).
The offensive line has some talent and experience, especially three-year starters senior Jeffrey Rodriguez (6-0, 260) at center and senior David Bretton (5-11, 220) at guard. Sophomore Steven Gonzalez (6-4, 310) and junior David Allen (6-4, 260) give the Soaring Eagles excellent bookend tackles. Sophomore Alvaro Pittar (6-3, 250) is the other starter at guard.
Defensively, the Soaring Eagles use a 4-3 set. Seniors Frank Arias (5-10, 220) and Robert Luna (6-0, 220) are the defensive ends, with Ruben Contreras (6-2, 250) and Rodriguez at defensive tackle.
Espana has been moved from safety to linebacker, where he’s joined by Boyd, who has impressed Valdez with his defensive prowess.
“He has excellent sideline-to-sideline speed,” Valdez said of Boyd. “He also has a good feel for the ball.”
The cornerbacks are Sanches and Rojas, with Colindres adding help there.
Roman and Castellano are the safeties, but Diaz-Mays has experience playing in the secondary and might see time there.
The Soaring Eagles open the season Sept. 7 at Shabazz in Newark. They then face North Bergen in a rematch of the state sectional semifinal game in week 2 at North Bergen Sept. 14.
“Having so much youth on this team is refreshing,” Valdez said. “At the same time, it makes me a little nervous, because they’re so young. You know they have to grow up first. But the last two seasons, our teams matured nicely. I think we just have to be mentally tough. We have the talent to do as well or even better than the last two years.” – Jim Hague.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.