The sun had not risen yet over Union City High School’s rooftop stadium last week, but there was plenty activity going on with the Soaring Eagles football team.
The clock might have read 5:45 a.m., but the Soaring Eagles were already at work, before the deliverymen took their trucks on the road.
“We’re used to it,” said fourth-year head coach Wilber Valdez. “We had all of our spring conditioning at 6 a.m. Three times a week, from April through June, we were at it. That’s where we started. It gives them a routine. We made it clear that we wanted to get a head start on everything. We told them that we needed to do more this year. This is a message to all to do more.”
So before anyone else was practicing, the Soaring Eagles were hard at work. No need for coffee and donuts. There was work to be done.
“It’s definitely time to get over the hump,” Valdez said. “Many programs would be happy being 10 games over .500 [21-11] over three years. For us to be a successful program, we need to win a state championship. That’s our expectation and the kids know it. They’ve had a little taste of success, but now they have to take the next step.”
In each of the last two seasons, the Soaring Eagles advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV and V sectional semifinals before losing. Last year, the Soaring Eagles went 7-3 before falling to Bloomfield.
“That’s why we need to do more,” Valdez said. “We have to get past that and go to the next level.”
Surprisingly, the players have all bought in to the early practice sessions.
“We’ve had about 98 percent attendance every day,” Valdez said. “We’re all at full speed at 6 a.m. Getting them up and getting them here is not that big of a deal. They know what they have to do.”
Valdez has high expectations for a team that on paper may be a year away. The Soaring Eagles’ roster is dominated by juniors, so one might believe that they might be geared toward winning a state title in 2014.
“They understand what we want,” Valdez said. “If they go out and work hard now, the sky’s the limit. We don’t have to wait until next year. They’ve already gone through the growing pains. They can win now.”
The Soaring Eagles have two quarterbacks that they can rely on. The battle for the starting slot may go on until the opening kickoff against Shabazz Sept. 6.
Juniors Elijah Mercado (6-1, 200) and Renaldi Tavarez (6-1, 180) are the two combatants for the starting signal caller position.
“They’re going neck and neck,” Valdez said. “It’s tough to call.”
Both will have the dubious task of trying to replace two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area quarterback Isaiah Diaz-Mays, currently playing at Towson University. Diaz-Mays was the focal point of the offense for the last three seasons, both running and throwing.
“They have some big shoes to fill, but they have a great grasp of the offense,” Valdez said. “There’s no drop off from one to the other. Tavarez might have the stronger arm, but they are both very good.”
Nawell Rojas (5-10, 185) will be one of the main cogs in the backfield. The junior Rojas rushed for 800 yards and scored nine touchdowns last year.
“He’s going to be our featured back,” Valdez said.
Tamaine Boyd (5-11, 225) will be the starter at fullback. Boyd, another junior, scored four touchdowns last season.
Junior Jonathan Castellano (5-8, 175) has been moved from split end to the backfield, giving the Soaring Eagles another threat there.
Senior Kevin Perez (5-8, 165) can fill in at either halfback or fullback.
“He’s the fastest kid we have in the backfield,” Valdez said.
Junior Daiquan Kelly (6-3, 200) is the starter at wide receiver. Kelly is one of the most coveted players in the state, already receiving six major college scholarship offers.
“He can run, jump, catch,” Valdez said. “And he’s still growing into his body. He’s confident now. He has become a better football player. He’s willing to work. He’s changed a lot as a person. His luck changed when he changed.”
Senior Rafael Cartagena (6-2, 225) is the starter at tight end.
The offensive line is also loaded, with two major college prospects manning the tackle positions.
Senior David Allen (6-5, 260) is fielding offers from schools like Monmouth and Fordham. Junior Steven Gonzalez (6-4, 305) has even bigger schools courting him.
“He has eight offers already,” Valdez said of Gonzalez. “He has a great work ethic. He’s very hungry.”
Juniors Alvaro Pittar (6-5, 250), a starter last year, and Kevin Mejia (6-2, 260) are the guards, with senior Roger Riera (6-0, 245) at center.
Defensively, the Soaring Eagles will feature Pittar and Cartagena at defensive end, with Gonzalez, Riera, Mejia and Ulysses de los Santos, a 6-2, 270-pound sophomore, rotating at defensive tackle.
Valdez feels that de los Santos will be the next in line with the college recruiters.
Junior Ariel Veras (6-1, 305) will be the nose guard.
“I think that’s the strength of our team,” Valdez said of the defensive line.
Junior Wilfredo Reyes (5-8, 190) will be a standout at linebacker, along with juniors Daniel Nunez (5-9, 190), Bryan Baez (6-0, 180) and Boyd.
Rojas was a standout at cornerback last year and he returns to that slot, along with senior Jose “Speedy” Sanchez (5-6, 160), junior Dayber Licea (5-7, 155) and Kevin Perez.
Kelly and Castellano are the safeties.
The pieces are certainly all there for the junior-dominated Soaring Eagles. Valdez is certainly throwing the gauntlet at them, pushing to win it all this year.
“The goals and expectations never change,” Valdez said. “Maybe it was once a goal to make the state playoffs. Now it’s an expectation. But we need to win the whole thing. When you’re in at 6 a.m. working, it feels like there’s a state championship coming. I feel that. I’m not a ‘why’ guy. I’m more of a ‘why not’ guy. I look at the depth, the talent, the character and it reminds me of the teams in Hoboken that I used to play for. We believe that good things will happen with good work.”
That work began before the crack of dawn last week _ and will continue straight through to December.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.