Two years ago, the Emerson High School football program reached heights it never had before, winning 10 games and advancing to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV title game.
The Bulldogs followed up the dream season of 2001 with another solid year in 2002, winning seven games and earning another berth in the state playoffs, before falling to finalist Hackensack in the semifinals.
As head coach Eddie Marinez enters his fifth season as the leader of the Bulldogs, he’s hoping – and expecting – more of the same in 2003.
"Since we took over the program, we’ve established a program where we can expect it every year," Marinez said. "We know we’re going to be that good. It may sound cocky, but we absolutely believe it."
So while the Bulldogs graduated some key performers from a year ago, including All-Area standout Manauris Arias (now at the University of Maine), Marinez feels confident that the Bulldogs will be a force this season, thanks mainly to perhaps the most talented player the program has developed in many years.
Sophomore running back Jeffrey Pena (5-10, 175) is everything you would want from a high school football player – and more.
"The first time he ran the 40-yard dash and was timed, he ran a 4.5," Marinez said of Pena, who played varsity as a freshman receiver a year ago, but has been moved to the backfield this season. "Last year, we basically told him to go long and catch the ball. Now, he’s doing what a running back does, waiting for his blockers and setting up the blocks. He knows that he has to slow down in order to go 100 miles an hour. We know that will proper preparation and training, he can become one of those gifted athletes that everyone talks about."
Pena is not alone. Senior Randy Vasquez (5-9, 165) replaces Arias at quarterback, filling the role that has been occupied by All-Area quarterbacks in each of the last two years. Ironically, Joan "J.Q." Quezada and Arias are now starting in the same defensive secondary at Maine.
"With J.Q. and Manauris, they had to make plays," Marinez said. "Randy just has to run the team. We have the athletes to do the special things."
Marinez will call upon two juniors, Josh Reyes (5-10, 190) and Henry Duran (5-10, 190), to handle the fullback duties.
The receiving corps consists of seniors Brian Inoa (5-9, 165) and Ludwin Lopez (6-0, 195) and junior Jonathan Espillat (6-3, 175).
"That’s an excellent group of skilled kids," Marinez said. "Jeffrey is the one who gets everyone going and makes everyone pick up the level of their play. Other teams are going to have to work hard to try to stop him, so that will open it up for the others, who are very good as well."
The Bulldogs have some talented performers along the line of scrimmage, led by senior tackle Nabil Salim (6-3, 275), who is ranked in the McCarthy Report, the state’s premier college scouting service, as one of the top 10 linemen in the state.
"Nabil just turned 17 and he’s only been playing football for four years," Marinez said of the Cuban immigrant who never even saw a football game before arriving in Union City four years ago. "He has excellent feet and speed. He’s going to make someone happy."
Senior Jose Mercedes (5-11, 200) anchors the offensive line at guard. Marinez loves Mercedes’ versatility, with the ability to play all three positions. The center position will be handled by either Rainier Cala or Edwin Ramos, both of whom are juniors.
Junior guard Gonzalo Rodriguez (6-2, 240) and sophomore tackle Felix Quintanilla (5-11, 280) round out the offensive line.
The defense welcomes back seven starters from a year ago, led by Salim, who earned All-Area honors at defensive tackle. Quintanilla also returns to his defensive tackle slot with Ramos seeing time there as well.
The defensive ends are both returning starters in Rodriguez and senior Gerry Ortiz (5-10, 185).
Lopez returns at middle linebacker, joined by returning starter Reyes and newcomer Duran.
Vasquez and Jonathan Santos will play the cornerback slots, with Pena and Inoa returning at safety.
"We hope that the experienced defense will be a strength for us," Marinez said. "The line will have to hold their own, but I think we have a pretty good team."
However, for the Bulldogs to make their fourth straight state playoff appearance, it will have to come in a newly restructured playoff alignment that includes perennial state powers Montclair, Bloomfield, Randolph, Roxbury and Morristown.
The Bulldogs opened their season last weekend against Memorial. – Jim Hague