When North Bergen and Union City met in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV football semifinals last November, one team moved on to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands to compete for a state title. The other went home.
That other team was Union City, courtesy of a heartbreaking, hard-hitting 10-7 setback to the Bruins on a field goal in overtime. The Bruins went on to capture the state championship. The Soaring Eagles had nothing.
“We made it a motivational part for our entire offseason,” Union City head coach Wilber Valdez said. “We put a circle around it. We let a big one get away.”
The players felt the same way.
“We all felt we should have won that game,” said senior quarterback Isaiah Diaz-Mays. “We felt like they took something from us. Coach Valdez reminded us that we were 20 yards from going to the Meadowlands. That was our whole motivation throughout the offseason. We all remembered that night, that game.”
Last Friday night, the Soaring Eagles were getting their shot at redemption by facing the neighboring Bruins.
And as the fourth quarter began to wind down, Union City trailed, 27-14. With a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game, things didn’t exactly look good for the Soaring Eagles. After having already suffered a loss to Shabazz in the opening week, Union City was staring at the unthinkable – an 0-2 record to start the new season.
“Our running back, Rafael Colindres, said that it was time to make something happen,” Diaz-Mays said. “We felt that we had to turn it up instead of giving up. I knew that the team would be counting on me, so it was my time to turn it up.”
Diaz-Mays, a three-year varsity starter, was asked what was going through his mind at that exact point.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Diaz-Mays said. “We were making too many mistakes to be in that situation. We shouldn’t have been down two touchdowns that late. But we still had time.”
“We knew that we didn’t have much time,” Valdez said. “We had to score quickly. We had to have a sense of urgency. We had to move, go no-huddle on offense, put in more passing sets.”
The comeback began when Colindres took a kickoff back 80 yards for a touchdown, slicing the lead to 27-19.
“That gave us hope,” Valdez said.
But it was then up to the Soaring Eagles’ defense to shut down the Bruins, something that they had not been able to do for the majority of the game.
“We were a little banged up,” Valdez said. “We had our fourth and fifth string linebackers out there. Without our starting linebackers, we had issues all day. But the one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in Union City is that these kids are not quitters. They hang in there and give their all.”
The Soaring Eagles did what they had to do, by stopping the Bruins and getting the ball back in the hands of Diaz-Mays for one last possession.
“He’s a very confident kid,” Valdez said of his quarterback. “It’s a big help that he’s the guy in charge. I looked him right in the eye and he looked ready to make some big plays for us.”
Diaz-Mays put the Soaring Eagles on his shoulders and began to carry them through.
“He hit a few passes, ran a few times,” Valdez said. “He got us down to the 4-yard line with 30 seconds left. It was fourth down and we had to get in.”
A penalty pushed the ball back to the 9-yard line. Diaz-Mays sprinted out to try a pass, but found no one open. He then took the ball on his own into the end zone with just 11 seconds left, then hit Colindres with the two-point PAT pass that tied the game at 27-27.
Once again, the two teams were headed to overtime, just like they did in the state playoffs last November.
“It was an eerie feeling,” Valdez said. “It really felt like last year.”
Especially when North Bergen lined up to kick a field goal in overtime to win the game. It was the same kid, Welmar Muriel, who kicked the Bruins to the state title game last year.
“I saw the same kid come out and I had a flashback,” Valdez said.
Except this time, Muriel missed the field goal, giving the Soaring Eagles a chance to win.
“The kids were pretty hyped up, knowing they had a shot,” Valdez said.
On the second play in overtime, Diaz-Mays took it upon himself.
“It was supposed to be a pass, but I decided to take it and see what happened,” Diaz-Mays said.
What happened was a 16-yard touchdown that gave the Soaring Eagles the improbable 33-27 victory.
“That game will be remembered for a long, long time,” Diaz-Mays said. “It’s a win that will boost our confidence. We have a very young team. We only have a handful of seniors.”
“It’s a huge win for the program,” Valdez said. “If we lost, we would have been 0-2 and that would have been very tough to come back from. Going 0-2 could have ended our hopes right there. It had been nine years since any Union City team beat North Bergen. Now, it’s a rivalry. We showed we can punch back. It’s a real rivalry.”
Valdez said that he was pleased that so many players, like Colindres, stepped up to make big plays.
“I told him that his role had been upgraded,” Valdez said of Colindres, who scored two touchdowns. “He does everything you ask of him. I told him that he had to make up for those who graduated. I told him that I needed him to be special. He took it and ran with it. I called him out and he responded.”
Valdez also likes the play he’s getting from sophomores Jonathan Castellano and Dequan Kelly, both of whom made big catches down the stretch.
And then there’s the play of the quarterback, who completed 5-of-11 passes for 111 yards while rushing for 112 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s the one who makes us go,” Valdez said of Diaz-Mays. “Hopefully, this is the kind of win we will remember when we make the state playoffs.”
And the state playoffs are now definitely a possibility after a clutch, unforgettable come-from-behind win in overtime against the neighboring rival – the same rival that ended the state playoff hopes a year ago.
It’s the kind of drama that is only found in high school football.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.