TASTY TIDBITSNJCU men’s soccer off to flying start

Character No. 8; football musings and first Top Fives

When Joe Cullen was a soccer player at Montclair State a few years ago, he was always impressed with the tenacity and the drive of the players at New Jersey City University.

“I had a great amount of respect for New Jersey City back then,” said Cullen, a native Clementon near of the south western tip of New Jersey, like Exit 2 on the New Jersey Turnpike. “I had the chance to play against them. I knew what the possibilities were. It was something I was very familiar with.”

So when the head men’s soccer position opened at NJCU earlier this year, Cullen jumped at the chance to become a head coach, even if he was only 26 years old.

“I knew that it was a program that should be highly successful,” Cullen said. “I knew that they just needed a little push in terms of intensity and commitment.”

Cullen arrived at NJCU with a ton of excitement and vigor.

“When training camp began in August, I really wasn’t expecting much,” said sophomore forward Theo Sanoh of Jersey City, a Dickinson High School grad. “I knew we were going to be better right away, better than the previous few years. I think it’s because there is always competition for a starting position. The best 11 play and everyone is fight for a position. There’s no defined starting lineup.”

The Gothic Knights struggled to a 1-16 record a year ago, so Cullen knew that he had only one place to go – and that was up.

“Anyone who has played the game of soccer knows that there’s a little luck involved,” said Cullen, who has played in more games than any other Montclair State player in the school’s history. “The team had been training hard and playing hard. We’re doing the best that we can.”

The turnaround is astounding, because the Gothic Knights have done a complete 360. They won their first seven games of the season – the first time in school’s history that an NJCU men’s soccer team had won its first seven straight. The record currently stands at 8-1-1, with the lone loss coming to the nation’s premier NCAA Division III program Rowan.

The excellent start has the Gothic Knights currently ranked among the Top 25 in NCAA Division III programs, almost unthinkable when you consider they won once a year ago.

“Winning is contagious,” said Sanoh, who had two goals last year and already has eight thus far this season. “It’s something we all want. I think that’s the biggest difference in the team between this year and last year. We’ve all improved and we all know we have a chance to win now. We’ve been playing together. We never want to experience anything like we had last year ever again.”

Cullen went to work and recruited a host of new players, including three from Union City, namely Douglas Reyes, Jose Salazar and goalkeeper Danny Montehermoso, as well as Adam Cassidy, the former Dickinson goalkeeper who attended County Prep.

Cassidy has done a nice job in goal for the Gothic Knights, posting a 1.27 goals against average. Salazar has collected five assists in the 10 games played.

“It’s a great start and we couldn’t be more excited,” Cullen said. “It’s hard to predict going 7-0. I knew we had a decent group of guys, but winning seven straight to start the season is being pretty wealthy. I just knew where we were starting from and I knew we were going to be better. I couldn’t be happier. We have a great group of guys who have bought into what I’m saying. They’re showing up regularly and working hard. They’re doing all the right things. We’re not worried about the next game. We’re only worried about the game we’re playing.”

Cullen said that he has a confident bunch right now.

“Of course, the great start brings about confidence,” Cullen said. “You can see it in the guys. They want to keep doing the right things. It’s only going to get harder from here, but the start gives us the right feeling moving forward.”…

Keeping up with the Top 25 Sports Characters of the last 25 years, here’s No. 8 – and it’s not Yogi Berra, who was the original No. 8 and was perhaps the best sports character in history.

Locally No. 8 is Carlton Pop” Russell of Jersey City, who has been a fixture in Jersey City Recreation circles for more than 50 years.

“Pop” who is distinguishable with his ever-present beard and pipe, has been watching over the kids of Jersey City’s Bergen-Lafayette section, back to the days of the old Bergen Colts of the Jersey City Pop Warner Football League. Russell was a highly respected coach of those youth football teams, who made sure that his kids followed the rules first and stayed on the straight and narrow before he cared about wins and losses.

In some aspects, “Pop” was the only true “pop” these youngsters had, giving of himself every single day, hardly ever taking a day off. From football through basketball and then baseball, Pop was there with the pipe billowing smoke and the kind thoughts coming from his heart. He always made sure that his kids did things the right way. It was invaluable guidance.

Everyone who is anyone in Jersey City knows “Pop” Russell and there are thousands of kids who are grateful for his dedication. He’s a character because he was always around P.S. 41 or P.S. 17 in Jersey City. One would leave one gym and Pop was there. Go to the next gym and somehow Pop beat you there. He amazingly was everywhere. And the kids needed him. So that’s why he’s No. 8 on this list…

Is there a running back in the state who has had two better weeks than Weehawken’s Brayan Padron? He had 261 yards rushing in the Indians’ season opening win, then managed 227 yards on 34 carries in the Indians’ 43-21 loss to Wallington last week. That’s 488 yards and three touchdowns in just two weeks for the hard-working Padron.

And Union City’s Izayah Reyes had 148 yards on just nine carries and two touchdowns in the Soaring Eagles’ 49-6 win over Dickinson last weekend…

Jorge Portorreal of St. Peter’s Prep had an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught two touchdown passes of 40 and 4 yards from quarterback Johnathan Lewis, as the Marauders remained the No. 1 team in the state with a 43-26 win over the Peddie School…

Hudson Reporter High School Football Top Five: 1. St. Peter’s Prep (2-0). 2. Union City (2-0). 3. Hudson Catholic (2-0). 4. Hoboken (1-1). 5. Lincoln (1-1)…

Hudson Reporter High School Boys’ Soccer Top Five: 1. St. Peter’s Prep (6-0-1). 2. Bayonne (4-1). 3. North Bergen (3-1-1). 4. Union City (3-2). 5. Hudson Catholic (3-1)…–Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com

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