The Dickinson High School boys’ soccer team was getting ready to face an opponent recently, and new head coach Rene Portillo walked over to introduce himself to the opposing coach.
Wearing the same warm-up suit as the players were, Portillo confused the opposing coach as he extended his hand in greeting.
“He thought I was a player,” Portillo said. “I get a kick out of that. I guess I looked like a player.”
It wasn’t a far stretch, considering that Portillo isn’t that far removed from being a member of the Dickinson varsity. After all, Portillo is just 22 years old, easily the youngest head coach of any varsity sport in Hudson County. He’s a 2003 graduate of Dickinson who later went on to play at New Jersey City University and became a language teacher and assistant coach at his alma mater last year.
So when former head coach Robert Brower – the 2007 Hudson Reporter Soccer Coach of the Year – had to step down in order to become a vice-principal at P.S. 23 in Jersey City, it became plain and simple that Brower’s assistant should step into the head coaching role, despite his obvious youth.
“I’m glad I had the year under him as an assistant,” Portillo said. “I learned so much. A lot of the time, I was basically left in charge and in control of the practices. So that helped me a lot. He guided me along. I am who I am today because he gave me a chance.”
Added Portillo, “I was fortunate to get the chance and fortunate to have the support from the school’s administration, who really believed in me and believed I could do the job. They took a chance on me.”
Portillo said that he takes his job as the head coach of the Rams very seriously.
“I take a lot of pride in my job,” Portillo said. “After all, I’m a Dickinson boy. It’s not like some other guy coming in from a different school and taking over. I am from the same atmosphere. I was here last year. Getting this job was a joy for me and I totally embraced it.”
Portillo said that he has enjoyed introducing himself to the coaches in the county that he once played against.
“I am getting the chance to let them see me on a different level,” Portillo said. “I know I still have a lot to learn, but I know I want to take this program to the next level.”
The Rams came very close to reaching the pinnacle a year ago, falling to Memorial in the HCIAA Coviello title game.
“I never got a chance to reach the next level as a player,” Portillo said. “I want to be able to do so as a coach.”
Since Portillo knew the players, there really wasn’t a huge transition period. And considering that he is not much older than the players, there was a comfort zone. Now all was needed was respect.
The respect was already earned. The players welcomed and embraced Portillo as their coach.
The results have been good. Despite losing several key players to graduation, the Rams are currently 11-4 and loom as a major threat to capture the HCIAA Coviello championship as the playoffs begin this week.
North Bergen earned the regular season title and the top seed in the playoffs, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who the eventual champion will be. The Rams have just as good of a chance as anyone.
Hudson Reporter All-Area performers Momar Diop and Christian Vasconez (now playing at FDU) have graduated, so it left Portillo a bit of a rebuilding job, especially since two other key performers from a year ago were academically ineligible this season.
But the Rams were fortunate to have another returning All-Area performer back, namely junior Maxi Garcia, who earned All-Area honors as a forward last season, but was moved to the center midfield position this season.
The move has been brilliant, as Garcia has emerged as one of the top all-around performers in the county, scoring 25 goals so far.
“He basically took us to the championship game last year,” Portillo said of Garcia. “Most of his goals last year were game-winners. He really motivated us to want to win. This year, everyone knew who he was and they put two and three players on him and he’s still scoring. We’re 11-4 because of Max. He’s still able to break teams down. He’s still super special and a lot of it is all him.”
Junior Edwin Proano is the team’s goalkeeper. Proano is a newcomer to the program, but he’s developed into a solid net minder.
“He came in from Ecuador, so we didn’t know what we had,” Portillo said. “If we had him from the beginning of the season, we’d be in a better position now.”
The leader of the Rams’ defense is senior sweeper Jorge Garrido, who is a returning starter. Garrido was the stopper on last year’s HCIAA Coviello finalists.
“He’s elevated his play to a whole another level,” Portillo said. “He’s been the brick wall to our defense. He brings experience, he brings heart and he brings tenacity. We wouldn’t be a good team without him.”
Senior Mina Azary is the team’s stopper and he returns from a year ago as well. The other two defenders are both freshmen, namely Jordhi Herrera and Manuel Morante.
“The freshmen have earned their positions and although they’re a little inexperienced, they’ve really improved,” Portillo said. “They’re getting there. They’re doing a phenomenal job. Sometimes, you forget that they’re freshmen.”
While the loss of Vasconez left a giant void in the midfield, Portillo has been pleased with the development of freshman Darwin Cruz, who has scored five goals and has 11 assists thus far.
“I didn’t think replacing Christian would be easy, but Darwin is like the second coming,” Portillo said. “He’s an up-and-comer.”
Cruz has already been spotted by the New York Red Bulls’ developmental program. There’s another reason why Portillo looks out for Cruz.
“He’s my nephew,” Portillo admitted. “He really makes me proud.” Senior Hany Mekila, who transferred to Dickinson after arriving from Egypt, is another midfielder, along with junior Jiovany Iniero.
The other midfielder is senior Ahmed Hanafy, another returnee from a year ago.
“Ahmed is a good solid player who is very consistent,” Portillo said. “He offers leadership and experience. He takes his time to teach the younger players.”
Junior Ronny Bueno has a fitting name as he plays on the Rams’ forward line, because according to Portillo, “He is that good.” And as everyone knows, bueno means good in Spanish.
“Ronny has been very solid and very productive,” Portillo said of Bueno, who has seven goals and four assists.
Freshman Khalid Benalla is the Rams’ other forward. Benalla has seven goals and four assists thus far. It’s amazing that a highly successful team would be able to start four freshmen, but that’s what Portillo does.
“I’ve been told that a lot, that it’s remarkable we have four freshmen,” Portillo said. “Other people said that you expect the freshmen to be nervous and afraid, but that hasn’t been the case. Khalid is one of the more vocal leaders on the team. He speaks up all the time. It’s rare to have a freshman who is a leader. I’m blessed to have those young kids for the next four years.”
And yes, the young kid head coach, who is all of 22, is thinking of the future.
“It’s been a very successful year,” Portillo said. “I’m just happy to carry on the winning tradition. I really felt like I was ready to coach, despite my age. Because I got the support from everyone, I was ready to be a winner.”
In that respect, winning knows no age. Rene Portillo is proof of that. – Jim Hague