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Union City running back Tamaine Boyd (5), seen here picking up yardage in season-opening win over Seton Hall Prep on Sept. 5, will help lead a talented and experienced Soaring Eagles team when it invades Woodman Field Saturday to take on Montclair. (Photo by Richard Morris/SHP)
Union City Looks To Snap 0-3 Skein
Wilber Valdez is saying all the right things when it comes to bringing his seventh-ranked Union City Soaring Eagles to Montclair’s Woodman Field on Saturday (2 p.m. kickoff) in a much-anticipated public school showdown between Top 20 ranked teams.
“Montclair is still the team to beat in Group 5,” said Union City’s fifth-year head coach. “They have experience in key spots, a great quarterback (in first-team all-stater and Boston College commit Elijah Robinson), a couple of key offensive linemen back plus a transfer from Alabama (two-way end Josh Allen) that certainly doesn’t hurt.
“The fact they lost their first game (29-14 at Pascack Valley this past Friday night) doesn’t really change anything as far as the way we’re approaching the game. We know that they are a very good football team regardless of what happened in their first game.
“I know that our kids will be very excited to get off the bus there, and be ready for business!”
If this is indeed going to be Union City’s year, with its most experienced team including a number of key, top college recruits, the mission to win a North 1, Group 5 title and emerge as the best public school in the state in 2014 may mean having to beat Montclair twice, something the Soaring Eagles have failed to do even once in three previous trips to Woodman Field.
“We’re not looking too far ahead because you can definitely stub your toe doing that,” said Valdez. “We need to play a complete game to beat Montclair this Saturday, and our kids certainly know that.”
Union City had a subpar first half in its opener against Seton Hall Prep back on Sept. 5, but soared in the final 24 minutes to overcome the stubborn Pirates and win going away, 48-24.
Montclair never did recover from its poor start at Pascack Valley and will have to be more emotionally ready to play on Saturday against a battle-tested and multi-talented Union City squad.
“I thought we had our kids well prepared last week, but we didn’t come out with enough emotion against a very tough opponent,” said Montclair’s fifth-year head coach John Fiore, whose team is ranked No. 18 in the state this week according to nj.com. “If we come out in the same malaise against Union City we’ll be in serious trouble, but if we come out like we did in our pre-season scrimmage against St. Joe’s (of Montvale) when we were up 28-9 at the half against one of the better teams in the state, then I like our chances much more.
“Our kids have to play with the emotion that has to be there, and we are working on correcting that.”
Union City lost twice at Montclair in 2010, dropping a season-opening regular-season contest, 27-22, on a last-second hail mary pass hauled in by the Mounties’ Khalif Herbin who turned the play into a game-winning touchdown.
Then, in the playoff semifinals that fall, the eighth-seeded Soaring Eagles lost, 35-12, at the fourth-seeded Mounties, who wound up losing to Randolph in the playoff final that December.
Last fall, in the N1G5 semifinals, Union City had its share of breakaway plays and kept the score very close despite being out-gained substantially by the Mounties, who survived for a 40-35 victory.
“We know that we’ll have our hands full with Montclair, which has the talent and a great coaching staff,” said Valdez. “I like our team and it is the most talented group I’ve had in my five years, but we still have to go out and prove it, and getting our first win at Montclair would be a great step in that direction.”
Regardless of what ensues on Saturday on what is Montclair’s “White Out” day where fans and students wear white shirts and school spirit is exemplified, the two teams could very well be meeting once again in December.
“Whatever happens, I think we’ll be seeing each other again in the playoffs,” said Fiore. “I think we’re the two most talented teams in the section.”
Montclair will have to play better at the line of scrimmage than it did at Pascack Valley, which won the game in the trenches along with monopolizing the ball all night long.
“We have to do a better job up front, there is no doubt about that,” continued Fiore. “We know that we’ll be facing some strong and physical players on the other side that’s for sure.”
Penn State commit Steven Gonzalez (6-5, 320) leads Union City as a two-way tackle. Ariel Veras (6-1, 300), another big two-way tackle, also helps anchor the line for the Soaring Eagles, who have seven seniors who have started since their sophomore year.
“Gonzalez,Veras (RB-S) Jonathan Castellanos (Old Dominion commit), (WR-S-LB) Daiquan Kelly (Penn State), (RB-CB) Nawell Rojas, (LB-RB) Danny Nunez (G-LB) Kevin Mejia and (LB) Wilfredo Reyes were all thrown into the fire as sophomores, out of necessity,” said Valdez. “Now, they have a wealth of experience under their belts in addition to a number of other kids who have played a great deal for us the last two years.”
One of those other standouts is powerful and quick (6-0, 240) Tamaine Boyd, a dynamic running back who rushed for 161 yards in the season opener against SHP.
“Tamaine is a ‘tweener’ in that he can play both fullback and tailback at the high school level, but now he’s proving he can be a tailback at the next level,” said Valdez. “He’s showing his balance as a back, but he’s also showing the speed and elusiveness you need at the next level.”
Buffalo and James Madison University are in hot pursuit of Boyd, who could be a difference maker Saturday, although the Soaring Eagles also have breakaway threats such as Castellano and Kelly, who just Sunday changed his verbal commitment from Syracuse to Penn State where he will join his big lineman Gonzalez.
“Coach (James) Franklin had his big win (at Rutgers) Saturday night and then called me 11 o’clock Sunday morning to offer Daiquan,” said Valdez. “He’s a gifted 6-3, 210-pound kid who could be a star at safety at Penn State, and he’s a heck of a player for us right now.”
With Robinson quarterbacking Montclair and powerful running back Shaquan Oliver seeking to find holes behind his O-Line, the challenge will be there for Union City as well as the Mounties in establishing the edge up front.
“That’s going to be a huge factor for sure,” said Valdez. “Football is football wherever it’s played and you have to be able to move the ball on the ground behind a strong line to be successful.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge and I’m sure Montclair will be ready to face us as well. It should be a great game!”
Fiore Has Shown Organized Approach In His Stint At Guiding Montclair
These are exciting times that before last weekend appeared only ready to simply continue if you are a Montclair High football fan, what with the program in the midst of a 24-game winning streak before last Friday night's loss at Pascack Valley, and with back-to-back North 1, Group 5 playoff championships.
The man at the vanguard of the program, which has now perhaps hit what could be considered a crescendo as far as being among the best public schools in the state the past three seasons.
John Fiore is starting his fifth season at the helm as the seasons have passed quite quickly and always with immense anticipation and excitement, whether it was the electrifying Khalif Herbin leading the way during the coach’s first two seasons in 2010 and 2011, or steady quarterback Nate Crutchfield engineering a late scoring drive to help set up a game-winning field goal to edge Bloomfield in overtime for the 2012 N1G5 crown followed by the Elijah Robinson-propelled squad that dominated Ridgewood in repeating as playoff champs last December.
Who knows what may have happened if Fiore’s heavily-favored Mounties had not beaten Bloomfield in the 2012 final? Could he have survived a second straight loss on the field in a championship setting after the 2011 disaster against North Bergen when the Bruins’ last-second touchdown pass resulted in a stunning defeat for the Blue and White?
Even though the title was removed and North Bergen was ruled to have cheated by using two illegal players, the result itself was hard to swallow, as painful, perhaps – at the time at least - as the late-game breakdown by Montclair vs. Randolph in 1990.
Remember that Jack Davies retired as coach in the winter following the memorable “Game of the Century” as the Mounties lost to the Rams, 22-21, on a dramatic, last-second Mike Groh field goal. Davies was an excellent coach with a great track record at Butler before he arrived at Montclair in 1984. He never won a playoff title at MHS, but had the Mounties in the mix almost every season, losing finals to Union in ’84 and ’85 and then the unforgettable Randolph contest in ’90.
Fiore now has two titles and shoots for a third straight with a team that is not as experienced as his previous two but still has a number of top-flight performers, headed by the Boston College-bound Robinson returning at quarterback and newcomers such as highly-touted two-way end Josh Allen, who has moved back to Montclair from Alabama, and a promising freshman running back-slot receiver Daniel Webb.
What Fiore has perhaps done best in his reign at MHS is he has molded a very well-organized program filled with solid citizens, whether that be the strong staff of assistant coaches or – most importantly - the fully-utilized, continued flow of outstanding players, creating a formula that is simply coming up roses at the moment, and perhaps still for seasons to come. Star performers, such as last year’s all-state defensive end Darius Slade (Ohio State), graduate, and replacements, such as the aforementioned Allen, now step in.
And, even though the line took a big hit in terms of graduation, veterans such as Chris Mangrum and Kryz Diaz are ready to lead a promising, strong new interior core group in the trenches, which is essential when facing big and athletic fronts like what they will see vs. Union City on Sept. 20 at Woodman Field in what is already being billed as “the public school game of the year.”
While excellent receivers have moved on to the next level, others, such as Webb, ‘the other’ Elijah Robinson and the versatile Chanse Riley, among others, are ready to help pick up the slack in the wide open and varied attack spearheaded by a reigning first-team all-state QB with the skills and smarts to go down as an all-time Mountie great.
The B.C.-bound Robinson is definitely a player to mold a team around, much like All-American Quintus McDonald was for Davies in 1984.
And, like Davies and the ill-fated Len Rivers (1991 and 1992), Fiore is an outsider, having come from Neptune High School, which was his last stop before being tabbed for the Montclair job in 2010.
He was selected over a well-qualified group of top candidates that included then popular baseball coach Ron Gavazzi, who also had a burgeoning football coaching background at the time. (Remember when Davies was tabbed as the Mounties’ new football coach in 1984 he was chosen over an insider, Mike Arace, who had been hand-picked by Butch Fortunato as his replacement; however, a search committee overruled any recommendation by the man who had been part of the ‘braintrust’ in the 1940s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s with the immortal Clary Anderson).
It’s no secret that there are MHS alumni who still don’t fully endorse Fiore, and he has also angered some Super Essex Conference coaches with his moments of candor that can be taken by some as bluster.
Yet, he has survived his first four seasons quite well overall - both on and off the field - even after a couple of rocky playoff finals in ’11 and ’12, before then putting forth a fully dominant product in 2013. MHS enters the new season as the 12 th-ranked team in New Jersey, but is also a good bet to eventually be the best public school in the state once again.
In essence, these are very good times for Montclair High football - even with the most recent setback at Pascack Valley - and the man at the helm is certainly in a very good place to be.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
John Fiore looks to have his Montclair Mounties ready for a bounce-back game in Saturday's much-anticipated showdown against Union City at Woodman Field. (Photo by Doug Allen)
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