When Victor Pesantez took over the Hudson Catholic High School girls’ soccer program three years ago, the Hawks weren’t exactly world beaters.
In fact, the Hawks were just 2-11 in Pesantez’s first season.
Last year, there was some improvement, as the Hawks moved to 5-7 overall.
But Pesantez said that he felt a change coming on this season — so much so that the coach called for summer practices.
“Their dedication was something else,” said Pesantez, who is a Bayonne firefighter. “We had about 12-to-16 girls coming to every workout. I think they all took it a little more seriously. The workouts weren’t mandatory in the summer. But they all mostly wanted to be there. That told me a lot.”
Pesantez said that there were incoming freshmen, girls who never previously played a second with Hudson Catholic that came to the summer sessions.
There was also some anxiety from the returning players.
“They wanted to know if I was coming back,” Pesantez said. “They had other coaches who left after one or two seasons. They said they heard rumors that I might not be coming back. I gave them my word and said, ‘Of course, I’m coming back.’ I think that helped.”
Pesantez said that word of mouth also helped the fortunes of his team.
“Little by little, I started to get siblings, sisters of other players, relatives like cousins,” Pesantez said. “We established some good grass roots.”
Pesantez said that others knew him from the travel team he coached, Peninsula City out of Bayonne, so his reputation as a coach was also growing.
All of these factors played a part in Pesantez’s confidence before the 2019 season began.
“To be honest, I told the girls that we were going to go undefeated in our division [in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League],” Pesantez said.
That was a pretty bold statement, predicting that his team would go from five wins to undefeated in just one year’s time.
“I guess that was either going to make me or break me,” Pesantez said. “I think that sparked them right up.”
The Hawks started the season with good wins against North Arlington, a traditionally strong program, and then turned it on with an 11-goal performance against Dickinson.
Up next was McNair Academic.
“We never had beaten McNair,” Pesantez said. “So I said to them, ‘Let’s all make history here.’”
Sure enough, the Hawks defeated McNair Academic, 3-0, on Sept. 11, to go 3-0 on the young season, but to give the Hawks that extra boost of confidence, defeating neighboring rival McNair for the very first time.
The wins continued until the Hawks won their first eight games, totally blowing past their win total for the previous two seasons combined.
Although the Hawks suffered a tough loss to perennial state power Glen Ridge last week, they still managed to win their first eight games.
“I think it’s because of our solid, young defense,” Pesantez said. “The offense is fast. We play fast. But our defense has won us games.”
The defense begins with senior Gianna Giordano, who started the season as a field player and in fact, scored three goals in the win over Dickinson that was mentioned earlier. But Pesantez made a switch and put Giordano, a transfer from Bayonne, in the net and that solidified the team.
“Our regular goalie got hurt and Gianna said, ‘Put me back there,’” Pesantez said. “Once she won her first game [the shutout win over McNair Academic, 3-0], she felt very comfortable back there. Now, she’s my goalie. I trust her back there.”
The Hawks utilize the “four across” formation in their defensive ranks.
The center back defenders are freshman Jazmine Turijan and junior captain Genesis Madavillas.
“Jazmine was that good and ready to play right away,” Pesantez said. “Genesis is the rock of the defense.”
The outside backs are junior Ryyana King and Caiya Edwards-Walker.
“They are two big, tall girls who are solid defenders,” Pesantez said.
The center midfielder is sophomore Xochilt Turijan. The name is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. This Turijan sister lit up the track doing sprints in the spring for the Hudson Catholic track team. That speed has been evident on the soccer pitch, as Turijan has been the main cog in the Hawks’ offense, scoring 14 goals and collecting 13 assists.
“She is definitely fast and she sees the field well,” Pesantez said. “Her foot work is amazing. She’s also very smart. She creates and distributes. She’s a special player.”
The other center midfielder is freshman Y’aaliyah Bryan. Obviously, with all these challenging names, they are not a sportswriter’s dream team.
“She’s phenomenal,” Pesantez said of Bryan, who has scored 12 goals this season. “She had a hat trick [against Dickinson] on the day her mother had a baby. She has pinpoint accuracy with the ball and nothing gets by her.”
Junior Julia Scarez is another midfielder.
“She’s a hustler,” Pesantez said. “She does her job. She gives me solid minutes.”
Senior captain Soukeyna Cisse is one of the team’s forwards.
“She is really fast and aggressive,” Pesantez said. “She leads the team and she’s also the Student Council president.”
Senior Salma Eddahiri is the team’s leading goal scorer. She already has 20 goals and five assists. Eddahiri also plays basketball in the winter months for the defending Hudson County champions.
“She didn’t play soccer last year,” Pesantez said. “She then called me and asked if she could come back. She’s a great finisher. Her teammates know that if they get her the ball in the box, she’s going to bury it in the back of the net. Last year, she just wanted to concentrate on basketball and her teammates all understood. I’m not surprised with her getting 20 goals, because we have girls who can get her the ball.”
There are still some games where Giordano plays in the field and goes to the forward line. When she does, then senior Hajar Elhaouss goes into goal.
The team also has the Fernandez twins, sophomores Naomi and Samantha, to enhance their roster.
Needless to say, Pesantez is overjoyed with the turnaround the Hawks have enjoyed.
“I’m very pleased,” Pesantez said. “Once the season is over, I can look back and truly enjoy what happened. But to win the first eight games? I never expected that. If the defense plays as well as it has, I don’t see a lot of teams beating us. I’m ecstatic about winning our division. It’s a great honor for that to happen.”
And for the Hawks players who showed the patience to ride out the tough times, well, they will now always have the banner that will soon grace the walls of the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium.