The Union City High School football team has reached a state sectional championship game in each of the last two years.
In 2017, the Soaring Eagles fell to top-seeded Montclair at MetLife Stadium in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V championship contest.
Last season, the Soaring Eagles were placed in the North Jersey Section 2, Group V bracket and advanced to the title game in that new section, but lost to top-seeded Piscataway in the championship round.
The Soaring Eagles were an impressive 9-2 last year, thanks to the exploits of Jean Alvarez, the Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player, and Charles Gaston, the Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year.
Both standouts have since graduated, as have fellow Hudson Reporter All-Area honorees Jaime Rodriguez, Eddy Coronado, Elijah Sparkman and Joel Jimenez.
Needless to say, that’s a lot of talent for one team to lose in one fail swoop.
But veteran Union City head coach Wilber Valdez isn’t overly concerned.
“We have other kids who are going for their last ride with us,” Valdez said. “We have program kids who have been on the ride, kids who patiently waited their turn and want to be the group that finishes the deal. The goal has always remained the same.”
Valdez is referring to winning a state championship, something that the Soaring Eagles have failed to accomplish in the school’s brief 12-year history. But they’re obviously getting closer with losses in the championship game in two different sections.
“I think it says a lot about the program,” said Valdez, who begins his 10th season as the head coach at Union City. “The standards are high and have been since we got there. Eight of the nine years, we went to the sectional semifinals. We only lost once in the first round of the playoffs. Our kids have worked very hard. It might be a new set of kids, but we want to see the same results.”
Valdez said that since the Soaring Eagles have been knocking on the door of a state championship, the program may get overlooked.
“I think we’re getting punished for our consistency,” Valdez said. “Through the years, having that heartache that comes with being close, we just reload, regroup and go back after it. We put a quality team on the field every year.”
And it appears as if the Soaring Eagles have done the same in 2019.
“I’m really happy about this team,” Valdez said. “I like the way this team has come together. It’s one of the better teams we’ve had when it comes to practice. They practice well and have good leadership. It’s a good team. It just has different faces.”
The starting quarterback is senior Joshua Negron (5-11, 190), who patiently sat the past two seasons and learned the ropes. Now, the position is Negron’s and he appears ready for the challenge ahead.
“He got some time as a sophomore,” Valdez said of Negron, who started three games as a sophomore in 2017. “He’s seen quality time. He has a good arm and he can definitely spin it. He commands the offense. He’s a well rounded football player. He can run it as well and he’s very mobile. He’s tough. His arm is exceptional and has nice touch on the ball.”
The main focus in the backfield is senior fullback Devin Gonzalez (5-6, 200), who has the dubious distinction of having to replace a stud like Alvarez. But Valdez has a lot of faith in Gonzalez.
“He’s explosive as heck,” Valdez said. “He’s low to the ground and runs hard. His speed is an eye-opener. He reminds me of Maurice Jones Drew [the former Jacksonville Jaguars star], He’s really hard to bring down.”
One halfback is junior Glaser Arias (5-11, 195).
“He came to us with high expectations,” Valdez said. “He is now living up to expectations. He’s a big back with shifty hips. He’s already getting good looks from colleges.”
Another halfback is junior Zahir Abdus-Salaam (5-11, 185), a transfer from Irvington.
“He was a starter at Irvington and we played against him last year [an impressive 34-10 win],” Valdez said. “He has some big schools looking at him. He brings another dimension to our backfield. He has speed and toughness. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Two other backs who will see plenty of playing time are senior captain Abdiel Ramos (5-7, 210) and senior Henry Villamar (5-8, 170). Valdez can’t say enough about his captain.
“The other day, he was asking me to watch practice films, because he thought there was something he could have done better,” Valdez said. “The kid is hungry to play. He’s a program kid who knows the plays better than anyone else.”
The Soaring Eagles’ receiving corps is deep, led by senior Jarred Montoya (5-8, 160).
“He’s the hardest worker on the team,” Valdez said. “He’s not really quick, but he is shifty. He’s a lot like [New England Patriots’ Super Bowl MVP] Julian Edleman. He also gets after it as a blocker.”
The rest of the receiving corps includes senior Corey Fitch (6-2, 180), senior Aaron LoRusso (6-0, 180) and sophomore Jalen Phillips (5-8, 160). Junior Luis Avalos (6-1, 225) is the tight end.
The offensive line features two returning starters in senior tackle Enuerys Rosario (6-1, 235) and senior guard Jalen Genao (6-1, 285), who started at center as a sophomore and started at left tackle last year.
“It’s certainly helpful that he’s played all three positions,” Valdez said. “He can school the others if they do something wrong. He’s done it all already. He solidifies everyone and they know what they have to do.”
Junior Steven Ferreiras (6-2, 240) and senior Marc Rivera (6-2, 275) are solid tackles, with junior Adrian Drew (5-10, 220) at guard and junior Joseph Alfonso (6-1, 320) at center.
“We did some shuffling around with the line, but they’ve jelled together nicely now,” Valdez said.
On defense, the Soaring Eagles will have Fitch and Avalos at defensive end with Drew, Genao and Rosario seeing time at defensive tackle.
“We have a nice rotation at defensive tackle,” Valdez said. “All three are pretty equal.”
The linebackers are Ramos with junior Johan Polanco (5-11, 190) and sophomore Dennis Garcia (6-0, 210). Valdez is very high on Garcia.
“He could be a [NCAA] Division I player,” Valdez said. “He has a lot of potential.”
Senior Geraldo Rovelo (5-8, 195) is also in the linebacker mix.
The cornerbacks are Villamar (the lone returning defensive starter) and LoRusso with senior Antonio Hernandez (5-7, 170). The safeties are Arias, Abdus-Salaam and senior Fernando Jimenez (5-11, 175).
The Soaring Eagles open their season at Passaic Sept. 6 and play Irvington at home on the roof Sept. 13. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com