In 2011, the St. Peter’s Prep soccer program enjoyed their finest year in recent memory, posting a 21-2 overall record, capturing the Hudson County Tournament championship (the first county crown in six years) and reaching the semifinals in the NJSIAA Non-Public A North tournament.
However, the Marauders lost a ton of talent from last year’s championship squad. They lost seven starters from that group, four of whom are now playing collegiate soccer, two at NCAA Division I schools.
Goalkeeper Ryan Baird is at Rutgers, midfielder Rory Duffy is at Rider and defenders Roberto Chernez (Bloomfield) and Anthony Gomes (Kean) all moved on to play at the next level.
But Prep head coach Josh Jantas doesn’t look at the graduation losses as being devastating.
“I think we’re hopeful with the program we have to be able to handle it,” Jantas said. “As guys move on because of graduation, we have others who can step up and do the job. Being truthful, we may not see that kind of quality players again. But we have kids who can work hard and play the game the right way and the results are positive.”
Adding insult to injury, the Marauders also suffered an unforeseen loss.
Forward Ajani Phillips, set to be a junior after scoring 30 goals in his first two seasons with the Marauders, was selected to participate with the prestigious Matchfit Academy program after receiving an invite from the United States Soccer Federation.
This program takes select players throughout the country and forms teams that play soccer 10 months a year. Former New York Red Bulls and U.S. National team captain Claudio Reyna is involved with this development academy.
Because of his selection, Phillips is not permitted to play high school soccer and has to concentrate his time with the Matchfit program.
“It’s going to give him more exposure to college coaches with the hope of perhaps playing for the national U-18 [18 years old and younger) team,” Jantas said. “It’s a huge loss for us. Ajani is at all our games and he’s the No. 1 cheerleader. I know he wants to be out there with his friends and teammates, but he’s not part of our program this year.”
Phillips trained with the Marauders throughout the summer in anticipation of playing this year, but learned of his selection to Matchfit just three days before the season opener.
“We knew it was a possibility, so we were aware of it,” Jantas said. “The timing was a little tough, thinking he was going to play with us, but he ultimately had to make a decision one way or the other.”
So the Marauders lost seven players to graduation and a goal-scoring machine to a select academy team. It’s definitely not easy to recover from.
However, the Marauders are more than holding their own. After a 0-0 draw with the state’s No. 7-ranked team Kearny Monday night, the Marauders own a 5-1-1 record and are looking like a team that could make a solid run at defending the county crown they captured a year ago.
“We have guys who have had a lot of success on the freshman and JV [junior varsity] levels,” Jantas said. “Those guys have been able to step in and have similar success.”
Senior Nick Cipriano is the team’s starting goalkeeper, replacing Baird. Cipriano has allowed just eight goals in seven games this season.
“He’s been doing a good job controlling the net,” Jantas said of Cipriano. “He made some big saves to protect the shutout against Kearny.”
Senior Dan Mahler is the team’s sweeper back. Mahler, one of the holdovers from last year’s defensive backline, has moved from left back to sweeper and has done it with ease.
“He’s not new to the position, having played sweeper on the JV level,” Jantas said. “He’s really handled it well.”
The stopper is senior Owen Sirianni, who saw limited action last year.
“Sirianni has stepped up his game and with his size [Sirianni stands 6-foot-3], he’s good in the air and we need that, because most of the team is a little small. He’s also one of our targets in set pieces.”
The other defenders are senior Matt Halchak and junior Rob Cordiero.
“Matt is another kid who has stepped up,” Jantas said. “These kids were good JV players as sophomores, role players for us as juniors and now are getting their chance to shine. It’s their turn.”
Junior center midfielder Juan Gomez is no newcomer. Gomez scored 13 goals and had 14 assists last year.
“He’s been great and we look to him to run our team,” Jantas said. “He sets the tempo and distributes the ball.”
Gomez has three goals and six assists in the early going this year.
The other center midfielder is sophomore Scott Rogers, who has done a lot of good work so far in Jantas’ eyes. Rogers has scored two goals.
Seniors Rob Capone and Enzo Bonelli and junior Brian Valencia are the other midfielders. Valencia has done a nice job thus far, scoring three goals.
Senior Andrew Romero, who is coming off an injury, was another mainstay last year. Romero scored 19 goals, including the game-winner against Union City in the county title game and scored two in the NJSIAA state playoff win over Don Bosco Prep.
“He’s a dangerous player,” Jantas said. “He has a chance to be a Division I player. Right now, he’s just looking to get fit.”
The forward line features senior Mike Giambalvo, who leads the team currently with five goals, and freshman Freddie Guacamaya, who has scored three times. Jantas likes Guacamaya’s future.
“He is a gifted player with a lot of promise,” Jantas said. “He’s going to be fantastic and special.”
So the pieces are in place for the Marauders, despite all the losses to top players.
“Our goal is to win another county championship and get a higher seed for some home games in the state playoffs,” Jantas said. “We try to look at ourselves as being perennial contenders now.”
As long as the newcomers keep producing, the Marauders could very well become the next Hudson County soccer powerhouse.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.