The Hoboken High School boys’ soccer team was making strides towards becoming a respectable force in Hudson County last year, but the Redwings were going to need a new head coach.
Billy Connors had spent a few years putting the pieces together, making the Redwings competitive once again. But as the 2018 season approached, Connors knew that his family responsibilities were not going to allow him to coach the Redwings for another season.
So Derek England, the athletic director at the school, didn’t know where he was going to turn for a new head coach – except for someone with a very familiar last name, with the emphasis on the family portion of the word familiar.
Nico Percontino, the former Redwing great player whose father Matteo was a legendary All-State soccer player at Hoboken and later became the head coach, even coaching his two sons, showed some interest in taking over the program that Connors helped to maintain.
Nico Percontino had spent four years coaching the girls’ soccer team at North Bergen High School before stepping away to concentrate on his family’s business called Bar One Public House in Fairview. But Percontino wanted to make sure that the program his father built and nurtured for three decades was in good condition, so he decided to take over the reins of the program.
“I was just trying to build a program,” Percontino said. “I thought maybe we could get a few wins.”
When time came to hold the first practice in August, Percontino was encouraged by the turnout.
“We had 28 kids at the first practice,” Percontino said. “We had a good group of freshman kids. So I decided to take them out for a jog.”
While running with his new team, Percontino informed the players of the history of Hoboken, one that included his family’s rich and storied history. Both Nico and brother Matt played for their father for a few seasons. Nico was on the Hoboken team that won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III state sectional championship in 1991.
“They were really into it,” Percontino said.
Percontino also had the team had dinner together at least once a week and do their homework together.
“I love doing this,” Percontino said. “This is how a team comes together. Billy Connors did a great job with them. They were moving in the right direction. I just wanted to see it keep going.”
Percontino surveyed the situation and made a handful of personnel moves.
“We just changed some positions around,” Percontino said. “I was very excited. I saw that they had talent. The skill was there. They could move the ball well and pass it well. They could shoot it well. I thought we could field a pretty competitive team.”
But Percontino had no idea what would transpire.
The Redwings own a surprising 12-6-1 record at press time, heading into the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state tournament against Belvidere.
“They’ve worked very hard,” Percontino said. “Now they’re getting to see the fruits of their labor. It’s been a lot of fun. I love watching these kids play. I love the game and love being with these guys.”
Percontino is fortunate to have two snipers. Most high school teams are lucky if they have one legitimate goal scorer. The Redwings have two.
Senior Victor Martinez, the basketball and baseball standout, is having a stellar soccer season, scoring 23 goals. Junior Daniel Henson goes a little better. He’s tallied 26 goals. It’s hard to recall a more potent duo in Hoboken history than Martinez and Henson.
“Victor just sprints back and forth, creating chances,” Percontino said. “He’s so good that he helps out in the midfield. Danny is such a good athlete that he’s able to do so many things. I love being around them. I couldn’t be happier.”
The goalkeeper is junior Jacob Jarret.
“He’s been doing great,” Percontino said. “It’s a big change since last year. We had to break him down and start again. He had to have no fear and that’s what he’s doing. He’s been tremendous.”
The Redwings utilize a “flat four” defensive alignment. One of the two center backs is freshman Andrew Castlen.
“From the first day of practice, when we ran a little scrimmage, I could tell that he had a very high soccer IQ,” Percontino said. “He understands what he has to do. He plays without fear and has very good foot/eye coordination. He’s able to do a lot of things.”
The other center back is senior Elijah Conlin. Incredibly, his twin brother Quinn plays for St. Peter’s Prep.
“He has a big body,” Percontino said. “He comes at every single ball in the back. He reminds me of [former Hoboken great] Baron Ballester. I told him that I needed him to be my Baron Ballester. He has a powerful left foot that is good on free kicks. He distributes the ball well. He plays every ball perfect and with patience.”
The Redwings utilize senior captain Andrew Paredes and junior Jason Santana as the other defenders.
The Redwings have junior Joey Sobolov as their defensive midfielder and freshman Ewan Sanchez as the main offensive cog at center midfield.
Sanchez just broke the single season freshman scoring record set by Leo Pellegrini more than 30 years ago. Pellegrini just presented Sanchez with a plaque for breaking the record with incredibly more than 30 assists.
“No one ever expected Ewan to do what he has done as a freshman,” Percontino said. “He’s taken command out there. He’s so humble and so unselfish. He gets more joy and passion in giving the ball to others. He still has a freshman body, but he’s taking all the hits and handled it all well.”
Juniors Henry Anderson, Nick Niera and – ready for this? – Nicola Percontino are in the midfield. It’s now been learned that Nicola Percontino and coach Nico are distant cousins.
“We never met before this season,” the elder Percontino said. “He just came back to the lineup recently after he was hit by a car.”
The Redwings also have Alan Martinez who sees time at defender and Fernando Alvarenga who is a defensive midfielder.
So the upstart Redwings move to the state tournament with big goals in mind.
“I really believe we can go far,” Percontino said. “It has been a lot of fun watching these kids play. I just want the season to keep going.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com and follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.