The Union City High School football team posted a 5-5 record a year ago and made another appearance in the NJSIAA state playoffs, this time in North Jersey Section 2, Group V.
But there was a little unknown fact about the Soaring Eagles’ five losses last year. When the Soaring Eagles faced the opponents that they unfortunately fell to, all five of those teams were ranked among the state’s Top 20.
It’s almost too unbelievable for words, but it certainly says a lot about the strength of the Soaring Eagles’ schedule.
“We want to take the program to the next level,” said veteran Union City head coach Wilber Valdez, who begins his 11th season as the head man with the Soaring Eagles. “That was one of the things we wanted to do after coming close [in 2018 and 2017].”
The Soaring Eagles went to the sectional finals in 2017, losing to Montclair at MetLife Stadium and fell to Piscataway in the sectional semis in 2018.
Last year, it was a loss to Ridge, 6-0, in the opening round. Ridge was a ranked team, as were Irvington, St. Peter’s Prep (the No. 1 ranked team in the entire state), Northern Valley/Old Tappan and Shawnee.
That is one brutal schedule – but the Soaring Eagles survived and kept their streak of state playoff appearances intact.
With the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic causing the NJSIAA to shorten the season to just six regular season games and no state playoffs at all this year, the Soaring Eagles have to basically motivate themselves, knowing ahead of time that the state playoffs are not a motivational option.
“The toughest part of this season has been fighting all the things going on,” said Valdez, referring to constant testing, temperature taking and close monitoring of his players, abiding by the state’s rules for a safe football season. “We still can have a quality season. We can’t rely on going to the state playoffs. A lot of the kids on this team are seniors and they don’t get a chance to play for a state title, but they can play for each other, play for their program, play for the school and play for the city.”
So, the motivation has been simple.
“Let’s shine through all of this,” Valdez said. “We are going to be able to play. That’s a blessing in itself. The kids in the spring, like the baseball and softball teams, they couldn’t play at all. So it’s a blessing. I think the kids are excited to play the six-game schedule and do what we’ve been constantly doing, where we’re supposed to be and where we expect to be every year.”
The Soaring Eagles were fortunate to be able to get work in during the month of July, when most schools did not permit their teams to practice.
“I have to give credit to the Union City Board of Education, who enabled us to be active all summer,” Valdez said.
The COVID rules established by the NJSIAA for safe play included player pods of a maximum of 10 and no use of a football at all. So basically, it was a lot of conditioning and a lot of positional work with their respective position coaches.
“We really didn’t do much football work,” Valdez said. “We were definitely behind of where we should be at this point, but we have a solid group of seniors who are determined to make this as quality of a year as possible.”
At press time, the starting quarterback position is up in the air and Valdez is actually considering a quarterback platoon. Junior Esteban Ortiz (5-11, 170) and sophomore Damon “WaWa” Pallotto (5-11, 205) are in the mix for the starting signal caller’s job.
“Both have been grasping the offense,” Valdez said. “We’re trying to open things up a little this year.”
Local quarterback instructor Lamar McKnight, who is mentoring a host of the state’s top quarterbacks, is now the Soaring Eagles’ offensive coordinator. He’s been working with both guys and has confidence in both.
“Pallotto is a good runner,” Valdez said. “Esteban is a very good athlete. He can play receiver if we need him out there. It’s a good head-to-head battle.”
Pallotto has been a YouTube superstar since he was seven years old, playing in the Union City Pop Warner league. So, he was groomed for this position for years.
While there might be a battle for playing time at quarterback, there is certainly nothing secret about the Soaring Eagles’ main running back.
Senior Zahir Abdus-Salaam (5-10, 190), a Hudson Reporter All-Area selection last year, rushed for more than 1,300 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. He has already declared his intentions to play at Western Michigan next fall.
“He’s well put together,” Valdez said. “He’s a hard-nosed runner. He’s added strength and a little bit of size, which will help him. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield. Sometimes, we line him outside [at receiver]. He’s a quiet leader. He’s very versatile. It’s pretty scary what he can do.”
The same could be said for senior Glacer Arias (5-10, 175), who rushed for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“They can be in the backfield together,” Valdez said. “He can line up in the slot.”
Other backs in the mix – “running back by committee,” Valdez said – include juniors Jaylen Guzman (5-10, 190) and John Paul Diaz (5-8, 170).
“We feel pretty confident with our backfield,” Valdez said. “I like the way they’ve been preparing.”
The wide receivers include senior Harol Campusano (6-2, 180) and juniors Jalen Phillip (5-8, 160), Jonathan Morrobel (5-8, 160) and Oumar Berrette (6-2, 160).
“There’s a lot of speed there,” Valdez said of his receiving corps.
The tight end is senior Luis Avalos (6-1, 245), who is a three-year starter.
The offensive line is very big and very talented.
Junior tackle Nelson Monegro (6-7, 275) is perhaps the best of the bunch. He has already received scholarship offers from NCAA Division I schools Arizona State, Syracuse, Kentucky, Central Michigan and Buffalo.
Sophomore Jasire Peterson (6-4, 260) is the other tackle.
The guards are senior Hugo Romero (5-9, 230), who was the starter at guard last year. The other guard is senior Adrian Drew (5-9, 220), a returning starter who makes more of a mark on the defensive side.
The center is junior Joseph Alfonso (6-2, 310), who was a tackle last season.
The defensive alignment is a traditional 4-3 set.
Avalos returns to his defensive end slot and he’s joined by junior Daham Subeappu (6-0, 200). Drew returns at defensive tackle, where he was an All-Liberty White Division honoree last year. The other defensive tackle slot will be either Alonso, Peterson or senior Steven Ferreira (6-2, 260).
The linebacker corps is headed by senior Dennis Garcia (6-0, 225), who is also a team leader. The other linebackers are junior John Carlos Suero (5-9, 205), senior Ronald Alvarez (5-9, 205) and senior Johan Polanco (5-10, 190), who got to see a lot of playing time last season. Pallotto might see some time with the linebackers.
Phillip, Morrobel, Berrette and Diaz comprise the mix at cornerback. Salaam and Arias are the safeties, along with Guzman and senior Jaden Leon (5-10, 195).
The Soaring Eagles kick off the season Oct. 2 at home on the roof against Newark East Side and play North Bergen on Oct. 9.
“We were on a roll in March and then everything got shut down,” Valdez said. “We have a lot of potential. Let’s see how it works out.”
Should work out just fine. – Jim Hague
Note: Valdez will be the guest in this week’s Hudson County Sports Podcast, sponsored by Stan’s Sports Center in Hoboken and Saddle Brook. You can listen to the podcast on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Just put Hudson County Sports Podcast in the search bar. You can listen to all the past podcasts on all three venues, some 30 interviews in all. Check it out.