In each of the last three seasons, Wilbur Valdez was sure that his Ferris High School football team did the right thing.
The Bulldogs worked hard, practiced hard and played hard, posting more wins than they had defeats – which was an abnormality at all the Jersey City public schools, but became a reality at Ferris under Valdez, the former Hoboken High and University of Miami standout. Under Valdez, the Bulldogs had developed into becoming the best Jersey City public high school football team on an annual basis.
There was only one problem. Ever since taking the Bulldogs back to the NJSIAA state playoffs in 2005, Valdez watched as his team fell just a few power points shy of returning.
One year, the Bulldogs missed the state playoffs by one-half of one point. Last year, they were the No. 9 team in an NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III field of eight.
“It’s definitely been frustrating,” said Valdez, who begins his seventh year as Ferris head coach this weekend. “We did as much as we could do to get in and still didn’t make it. We did as much or more than others who did get in. But that power point bug bit us on the last weekend and we didn’t get it. We were always right there. We did everything in our power to get in. It was very frustrating.”
Valdez knows that he has the Ferris program beyond the competitive level. The Bulldogs are part of a respectable and competitive program.
“We got it going in the right direction,” Valdez said. “We’ve had four consecutive winning seasons. This is more than a team now. It’s a full-fledged program. We just have to get the last piece and that’s making the state playoffs.”
Almost remarkably, the Bulldogs have posted identical 6-4 records for the last four seasons. And if they’re going to improve on that mark in 2009, they will do so facing a much tougher schedule.
Thanks to the NJSIAA’s nearly complete realignment of New Jersey scholastic sports, the Bulldogs find themselves in the North Jersey Tri-County Conference, facing teams that Jersey City schools never even dreamed of playing.
For example, in mid-October, the Bulldogs will play two consecutive games on the road against Passaic Valley and Lakeland Regional. Say what? You can be rest assured that there are adults in Jersey City who have no clue where Little Falls (the locale of Passaic Valley) and Wanaque (Lakeland) are, never mind high school students.
The Bulldogs will also face Nutley, DePaul of Wayne, and Paramus this season. But they will not face Jersey City public school rivals Snyder and Lincoln, which borders on the absurd.
The schedule is what it is – and it definitely represents a better chance for the Bulldogs to finally reach the post-season.
“I like the fact that we’re playing in a tougher league,” Valdez said. “I think it’s going to make us better. Nothing against some of the Hudson County schools, but we don’t have a down week in the schedule. There won’t be 40-0 halftime scores anymore. It feels comforting to know that if we do our business, we can make the playoffs. I see it as a positive thing. We will not fear the competition.”
Once again, the Bulldogs have a lot of depth and talent in their skilled positions, with as many as six different running backs looking to carry the football.
The quarterback is sophomore Steve Le (5-10, 165), who may be the very first Ferris football player of Vietnamese descent.
“Steve throws a nice ball and is doing a nice job with the offense,” Valdez said. “He has football savvy for a young kid. He is a gamer. He has some work to do to become a pressure quarterback, but he’s getting there.”
Senior William Peters (5-11, 190), a transfer from Washington, D.C., is emerging as the Bulldogs’ go-to back.
“He’s a do-it-all kind of back,” Valdez said of Peters. “He’s shifty, but he also can run with power.”
Junior Zikim Williams (5-6, 160), a little scat back out of the mold of former Ferris standout Devon Shaw, will also get his share of carries. Seniors Terrence Williams (5-9, 185) and Brandon Fitch (5-8, 175) and sophomore Isaiah Johnson (5-8, 165) are also in the mix to see time at the Bulldogs’ halfback position.
The starting fullback is senior Bryant Worts (6-1, 215), who is better known for his defensive skills. Terrence Williams (not related to Zikim) will also see time at fullback.
The wide receiver will be senior Wayne Judson (5-10, 170), perhaps the most versatile of the Bulldogs. Not only is Judson a quality receiver with good hands, but he’s also a fine defensive back and a very impressive punter.
“He’s a strong asset to have on this team,” Valdez said of Judson.
Junior Sean Lee (6-2, 205) is the team’s tight end. He’s one of twin brothers on the Ferris roster, with the other being tackle Scott Lee (6-3, 290). Obviously, they’re not identical twins.
The Ferris offensive line is blessed with good size, like the aforementioned Lee brothers. Junior Justin Santos (6-6, 340) is the largest Ferris player ever and he anchors the line at tackle.
“He’s a kid who will definitely play at the next level,” Valdez said of Santos, who has senior eligibility this season.
The guards return from last year. Senior Raimel Monroe (5-10, 270) is a three-year starter, while Steven Skipper (5-10, 260) is a two-year starter. Senior Darryl Williams (6-4, 280) is the center this season. He played tackle last year.
Needless to say, this is a line that is gigantic.
“Our line is huge, but they have to jell together,” Valdez said. “They have a chance to be great upfront. We get them to go hard the whole game.”
Valdez plans on using several different players defensively, to keep everyone fresh and active.
“It’s a luxury for me to have so many kids who can play and play all over the place,” Valdez said.
The key to the defense is Worts, who is the returning Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year and is a sure-fire stud at middle linebacker. Worts, who was battling a sore groin in the preseason, goes from sideline to sideline like very few players who ever played in Hudson County.
Skipper, Sean Lee, Monroe and Terrence Williams will all play defensive end. Santos is an immovable fixture at defensive tackle. Scott Lee will also see time at defensive tackle.
Sean Lee will also see time at outside linebacker, where he might be best suited.
“He’s big and fast and looks like you want a football player to look,” Valdez said of Sean Lee. “He just needs what goes on from the neck up to catch up to his body.”
Johnson, Fitch and senior Taylair Mobley (5-8, 165) are the cornerbacks, with Steve Le, Peters and Judson seeing time at safety.
The Bulldogs open this weekend against Dickinson, then play Nutley and Union City.
“We will definitely know what we have after the first three weeks,” Valdez said. “Our kids are ready to accept the challenge and fly high.”
And perhaps, after the near misses, finally make the state playoffs again.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.