A year ago, the Ferris High School boys’ soccer team shocked a lot of people when the Bulldogs raced out to wins in their first eight games en route to a stellar 15-3 ledger.
Head coach Roberto Escobar knew that it would be a major challenge trying to duplicate such success, considering the Bulldogs lost so many key players to graduation and age restrictions.
For example, standout striker Kevin Mejia, who scored 17 goals a year ago, turned 19 years old, making him ineligible to play by the rules established long ago by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics.
“That was a big loss,” Escobar said.
And the Bulldogs’ other leading scorer, senior Amara Conte, began the season with a knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines. Conte scored 16 goals last year and also had a fine outdoor track season last spring. Conte’s status for this soccer season remains up in the air.
“To be honest, I don’t even know when he’s coming back,” Escobar said.
Needless to say, Escobar had no idea what to expect from a team that had the expected loss of six graduating players and then the unforeseen loss of Mejia and Conte, who combined to score 33 goals last season.
“You always hope to have one or two new kids,” Escobar said. “But you never really know who’s there and who’s coming back. So the concern is always there. I always had a little bit of concern about who my striker was going to be.”
So Escobar just assembled a team and hoped for the best.
“We just had to do whatever it took,” Escobar said. “We needed other kids to step it up.”
Well, in the early stages of the new season, the Bulldogs have more than simply stepped it up. It is almost like a carbon copy of last season’s results, just with a new cast of characters.
“We have a bunch of great team players who do everything we ask of them,” Escobar said.
The result has been six wins in the Bulldogs’ first seven contests of 2019.
One of the key returning players is junior goalkeeper Manuel Brizuela, who was the starting net minder in most of the Bulldog matches last season.
Brizuela has been brilliant, including a 12-save effort in a recent shutout win over neighboring rival Hudson Catholic.
“He was very good last year,” Escobar said of Brizuela. “But he’s been even better this year. He made some great saves to get the clean sheet against Hudson Catholic. I always tell my team that when you know the guy in the net is going to make saves, it gives you a lift. Manuel’s play speaks volumes for this team, because they all know he’s going to make the big save.”
Brizuela spent most of August on vacation with his family in El Salvador, so he missed most of the preseason practices and the team’s first two games. So senior Milton Morales, usually a staple in the Bulldogs’ backline of defense, filled in and played those games in goal for Ferris and performed admirably.
“He did a great job,” Escobar said of Morales. “He was there the whole preseason.”
The team’s sweeper is senior Manuel Chanchavac, who has been a solid defender for the last three seasons.
“We know we have Manuel there and we play confident because of it,” Escobar said. “He’s a solid defender who also takes our free kicks and comes up to play on set pieces, getting some headers. Everyone on the team trusts Manuel.”
The stopper position has been shared by senior Abanoub Zaher and junior Richard Calderon. Both play practically the same amount of minutes.
The other defenders are senior Miguel Guzman and former goalie Morales.
The center midfielders are senior Felipe Barahona and junior Gabriel Archaga.
“Felipe is more of a defensive midfielder,” Escobar said. “Gabriel is our playmaker who gets everything going in the middle of the field.”
The other midfielders are seniors Justice Shall and Erasmus Shall. The two are not brothers, but cousins.
“Justice is more of an assist guy, while Erasmus scores goals,” Escobar said.
Freshman Henri Cifuentes is another midfielder that Escobar can call upon off the bench.
Ferris’ entire forward line is comprised of newcomers.
Freshman Royer Santamaria has been a godsend and currently leads the Bulldogs in goals. Santamaria had four goals in a win over Marist and had three in a win over Passaic Charter.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Escobar said of Santamaria, who has tallied 13 goals in the early going.
Jonathan Seda is another freshman forward.
“He caught the attention of some college coaches already,” Escobar said. “He has great speed and footwork. I can only imagine how good he’s going to be. I think he’s going to be a stud.”
Sophomore Alaeji S. Goba is another forward. The reason for the middle initial? Well, Alaeji has a brother whose name is Alaeji as well. He also attends Ferris, but doesn’t play soccer. But having two students in the school at the same time with the same name can tend to be confusing.
“He’s come up big in some big games already,” Escobar said of Alaeji S. Goba. You have to remember the initial.
Another freshman who will play a huge role moving forward is Phoenix Overholser. One thing’s for sure. The Bulldogs certainly have the most unique names in Hudson County.
So the Bulldogs are marching on with a cast of newcomers, a bunch of talented freshmen with promising futures – even if the future is now – and the other holdovers who remember what it was like last season to play for a winning team.
“The freshmen are making their mark,” Escobar said. “The future definitely looks bright. Henri is a pinpoint passer and the rest of the players are benefitting from those passes. The freshmen have stepped in and haven’t missed a beat. We’re probably going to be as good as we were last year. We have a little more depth this year. I sort of feel blessed, because I didn’t expect getting players like Phoenix and Henri. We’re definitely doing well.”
So much for getting hit by the graduation bug. The Bulldogs are for real once again.