With the merger this year of Union City’s two high schools – Emerson and Union Hill – comes a new sports program. While the new building that merges the schools will not be ready until 2009, the once-rival sports programs have begun to come together in 2008 in preparation.
Starting this year, Emerson and Union Hill are considered the north and south campuses of the new Union City High School. And their sports teams are now together as one, with the “Soaring Eagles” as the school symbol.
Superintendent of Schools Mr. Stanley Sanger said that the merger of the sports programs “will set the tone of how well we establish camaraderie.”
He added, “The sports will build a playing field for unity, togetherness, and a sense of spirit that will carry over into the community and into academics.”
“This begins the journey of our transition to the new Union City High School,” said the school’s principal, David Wilcomes.
High school sports will be defined by a host of new qualities at UCHS.
“The mission philosophy of Union City High School’s football is to build confidence, self-esteem and a feeling of contribution within each player,” said Head Football Coach Joe Rotondi. “The program will create an environment for innovation and growth and above all else, demand that our student-athletes be students first and athletes of character.”
Superintendent Sanger and Principal Wilcomes have made creating student-athletes one of their main goals. “We focus on the ‘student’ in that phrase, and through athletics, we can improve the academics as well,” said Sanger.
“By having an athletic program that competes at the highest level, we can send a message that we want to achieve athletically, academically and artistically,” said Wilcomes.
Coach Rotondi was the first employee hired by the board of education for UCHS, followed by the other head coaches, since so much preparation was needed for September.
Rotondi has been holding football practices all summer long as he strives to “provide the Union City community with a program that they can both support and be proud of.”
He has been coaching football for 22 years and has spent the last eight as Union Hill’s head coach. His talent has rendered multiple championship teams that have produced two Division I college athletes.
The football team heads to camp on Aug. 19 to train for their first game against Hunterton Central on Sept. 5.
“The players realize that a new era has begun and are all excited to be part of it,” said Rotondi.
Returning all-county running back Steve Ulacia headlines the talented core of backs for the 2008 season.
At quarterback, three quality players return: seniors Tommy Valazquez and Eddie Gonzalez and junior Pedro Aragon.
Rotondi has built his team around young talent.
“The junior class shows promise with Ricky Ramos along with sophomores Dominick Montanez, Yorwin Ibarra, Chris Hernandez and Ed Ayala,” he said.
Having a ball
The UCHS soccer team had over 100 students come to work out with the team, which raised some difficult decisions for Head Coach William Shapiro. However, Shapiro feels confident and excited with the combining of the schools.
“Union Hill and Emerson have always been competitive soccer teams in the HCIAA, and now that the teams will merge, the talent pool is much larger, which makes for a much stronger team,” he said.
At 26 years old, Shapiro is one of the youngest coaches hired, but he has dedicated most of his life to playing and coaching soccer. He coached boys and girls soccer in Union City for three years and the women’s college team at New Jersey City University. As a player, he was a team captain at Vernon Township High School, where he also set the single-season scoring record.
Shapiro has also been promoting a sense of unity, which will be a crucial part of the formation of UCHS.
“Soccer is the ultimate team sport because you have 11 people working together. All 11 players play defense and offense, and I do not like the idea of a ‘star’ player,” said Shapiro. “Of course, I hope that I have players who individually do well, but one of my main goals is to get the entire team to function as one unit.” The soccer players have been conditioning twice a week all summer and will play against Bloomfield High school on Aug. 29.
Like Coach Rotondi, Shapiro’s goals for the season include instilling character and an academic drive within his players.
“I am coaching student-athletes, and it is important for me that my players realize that education is their number one priority,” he said. “I hope to instill an excellent work ethic in my players so that they can succeed in life outside of athletics.”
The cross-country track program, headed by veteran Coach Amador Rodriguez, has the motto of “run as one,” yet Rodriguez had no problems merging the runners from the North and South.
“You would think we began running together years ago,” said Rodriguez.
The runners will be led by sophomore Luis Romero, who was a top athlete in North Jersey last year.
The team has been practicing all summer, mornings and evenings, and is preparing to attend camp in New York later this month, before they open their season on Sept. 19 at Darlington Park.
Head tennis coach Greg Campbell ran the tennis program at Emerson for the past six years with winning records. Then he was hired to coach the girl’s tennis team for UCHS this year.
Since many of the top players recently graduated, Campbell will be preparing the younger students.
“They need to be able to step in and contribute to the varsity team immediately, so we will be working hard to get them ready,” said Campbell.
But they do have returning sophomore Gabriela Serrate, who was 1st team all-county, and senior Marvy Sinning, who was a top doubles player last season. Campbell’s Lady Eagles will play their first set against Dickinson on Sept. 15.
“I like opening against them,” said Campbell. “They usually have a couple of very good players, so my team gets tested early, but [Dickinson doesn’t] have the depth to win an entire meet.”
Need new rivals
As the deep-seated rivalry between Union Hill and Emerson is laid to rest forever by the overwhelming sense of unity among the staff and players, UCHS looks to new challengers in the HCIAA and the state.
Whether these new rivals are found in North Bergen or from the powerhouse athletic program of St Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, the entire community eagerly awaits the fall sports season.
Union City’s teams will wear shiny navy blue, white, and silver uniforms.
“I am looking forward to all students of Union City being on the same team instead of being rivals,” said Wilcomes.
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The new school symbol is the ‘Soaring Eagles.’