Wilbur Valdez knew that taking over at Union City High School was not going to be an easy task. The former Ferris head coach and former Hoboken High and University of Miami standout received the head coaching position at Union City in a very extensive and intense interview process last spring.
Valdez knew that the vultures and the second-guessers would be out in full force, hoping and waiting for him to fail. It’s the nature of the beast.
But when Valdez took the job, replacing Joe Rotondi, he wanted to make sure that the transition process was as smooth as possible.
“My mindset was that I wanted to hit the ground running,” said Valdez, who had spent the prior seven seasons building and molding the Ferris program into respectability. “When I took over in March, I wanted to make sure that we were doing the right things in terms of strength and conditioning. The kids were very receptive to me. I think they knew who I was and that helped my credibility.”
What also helped is that Ferris defeated Union City last year, 35-28, in the official opening of the new Pep Novotny Field on the roof of the new Union City High School.
“These kids are fans of the game and they had to have heard stories about me, especially since Joe Rotondi coached me in high school,” Valdez said. “I think they were intrigued by that and the fact that I brought my whole staff with me.”
Valdez’ coaching staff reads like a ledger of great players who came out of the same storied high school program as the head coach. Guys like Steve Berson (Rutgers), Keeon Walker (Syracuse), Ravon Anderson (North Carolina and Rutgers) and Carlos Perez (Florida and the Philadelphia Eagles) have all joined Valdez at Union City.
“The fact that we all came from the same high school program and know what it takes to be successful on the high school level, learning the blueprint from a great coach like Ed Stinson,” Valdez said. “That definitely had to help. I think they all realized that we were all here to do the job.”
But before the season officially begins next weekend with a contest at Montclair, Valdez and his Soaring Eagles are up against it already.
The Soaring Eagles, who were a disappointing 3-7 a year ago, took a huge hit last week, when it was learned that standout two-way tackle Josue Matias, earmarked for a sure-fire NCAA Division I big-time scholarship, suffered a torn patella tendon in his knee. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Matias, ranked among the top 25 offensive linemen in the nation and the No. 6 college prospect in New Jersey, will require surgery on that knee and will be lost for the season.
“When you lose someone of that magnitude, it’s tough emotionally on everyone,” Valdez said. “This is a kid who was doing everything right. He busted his tail in the weight room. He was getting all As and Bs in the classroom. He’s polite to everyone and respectful of everyone. When I first came here, I had an issue with the way everyone else was working, but not Josue. He turned things around for the others and made them work as hard as him. This hurts not just for the team and for me, but I feel so bad for Josue. He worked hard for this opportunity and now he’s gone.”
Valdez is certain that Matias will still get a chance at a major college scholarship.
“He’ll be back and maybe even better than ever,” Valdez said. “He’s going to have a bright future in college football.”
So the Soaring Eagles will move on without Matias and the naysayers will continue to fire off the negative comments towards Valdez.
“I’m trying to look at it as if Josue was a big part of the puzzle, but he wasn’t the only part,” said Valdez, who rolled off four straight six-win seasons at Ferris before going 4-6 last fall. “We’re going to miss Josue, but now, all the other guys have to work a little bit harder. I think they understand that. They’ve bought into that idea and they’re ready to move on.”
And Valdez is making sure that the loss of the standout lineman is not the end of the world.
“We definitely have the kids to make a state playoff run,” Valdez said. “I’ve told them that. And that’s the mindset we have right now. This is now a character test and how we bounce back and respond.”
Leading the way is senior halfback Dominic Montanez (5-9, 180), who is definitely one of the fastest running backs in Hudson County.
Montanez rushed for 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, but he earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors as a defensive back.
“He definitely has a chance to become a special player and we talked to him about that,” Valdez said of the speedy Montanez. “He has all the tools to do what it takes. He definitely has embraced more of a leadership role, especially in the last week.”
Valdez means that Montanez has stepped forward after the injury to Matias.
Senior Edgardo Ayala (5-11, 220) is the team’s starting fullback. Ayala has been a three-year starter at Union City.
The Soaring Eagles also have senior Roy Santiago (5-9, 180) and sophomore Nick Espana (5-8, 180) in the backfield. Valdez is high on Espana.
“He’s going to be a special player,” Valdez said of Espana.
The quarterback is sophomore Isaiah Marrera-Mays (6-3, 170), who has the makings of being a fine signal caller.
“He’s going to be a good one, but he’s still a baby and he’s still learning,” Valdez said.
If Marrera-Mays isn’t ready to handle the responsibility just yet, Jesus Larios (5-8, 180) is poised and ready.
Junior Antonio Pacheco (5-9, 170) is the main wide receiver, while talented athlete Christian Hernandez (6-0, 220), another returning starter and senior, is the tight end.
Senior Steven Garcia (6-3, 265), junior Kevin Arias (6-0, 240), and sophomore Jeff Rodriguez (5-10, 210) have the dubious distinctions of trying to fill the void at tackle created by Matias’ injury. Senior Isaac Flores (6-1, 220), senior Kevin Iraheta (5-9, 200), and sophomore David Breton (5-10, 210) are all battling for time at guard, with returning senior starter Mervin Menier (5-10, 230) at center. Flores and Menier are holdovers from last year’s offensive line.
Defensively, the Soaring Eagles will count on Flores at defensive end – where he has started for three seasons – along with Iraheta. Arias, Garcia, Menier, and Hernandez all battling for time at defensive tackle.
Ayala is a fixture at middle linebacker, with junior Juan Cruz (5-11, 180) and junior Keven Roman (5-9, 220) also in the mix at linebacker. Roman will also handle the team’s kicking duties.
Montanez, an All-Area defender, is back at cornerback, with Santiago and Pacheco helping out there. Espana, Larios, and sophomore Ralph Colindres (5-8, 160) are the team’s safeties.
Valdez doesn’t want to think that he will have time to build the Union City program like he did at Ferris. He wants to win right away.
“We can’t have the mindset of coming in and taking a few years,” Valdez said. “It can’t happen here. We can get it done this year, right away, even with the loss of a great player like Matias. We’re going to have a good season.”
If the Soaring Eagles aren’t successful right away, then the naysayers will grumble louder and more frequently. Valdez knew that when he took the job. Now, the real pressure begins.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.