After spending the first two years of his high school life at East Orange Campus High School, Pape Taha (pronounced POPPY) wanted a change.
“I didn’t play soccer there, because I was going to concentrate on my studies,” Taha said. “But I wanted to play.”
Although Taha didn’t play at East Orange, he was very active with the Ironbound Soccer Club, where Hudson Catholic head coach Rui dos Santos was involved.
“Rui saw me playing club,” Taha said. “I didn’t know anything about Hudson Catholic, but he recommended it.”
“He was a young man looking for better options,” dos Santos said. “He contacted me and wanted to take a look at the school. His club coach is a friend of mine. I saw him play a few times and he stood out. I wondered where he would play if he came on with us.”
Taha decided to transfer to Hudson Catholic to begin his junior year.
“I was kind of nervous, but everyone made me feel comfortable,” Taha said. “It took a lot of the pressure off. Now, I love everything about it. I love the place, the people and the coaching staff. I got to know all of the soccer players and that made me feel better.”
When the 2016 season began, Taha was entrenched as the center midfielder for the Hawks, playing with high scoring Ariel Parada, who was already in place as the Hawks’ sniper, having scored an astounding 32 goals last season.
“Having Parada with me has been a huge help,” Taha said. “He’s one of the best players around.”
“Ariel Parada is the best striker in Hudson County,” dos Santos said. “Pape was incorporated quickly into our program. He never played high school soccer before, so he had to get himself in shape to play. He had some serious injuries. Two years ago, he broke his leg. He also had ankle injuries. He was really never able to participate in high school.”
But Taha felt like he was ready.
“I’m a very aggressive player,” Taha said. “I like taking defenders on. I want to take the defender on and make the most of it. Thanks to Coach Rui, I was put in the best situations to score. Parada trusted me with the ball and I was able to feed off that.”
Dos Santos loved what Taha brought to his program.
“Having someone like Ariel has helped us turn the corner, but we’re not there yet,” dos Santos said. “Pape is truly versatile and can play all over the field. He’s been our jack of all trades. He has helped to make Ariel a better player.”
There’s no denying that. Parada has 46 goals this season, besting last year’s total. A lot of that is because of Taha, who has 16 assists.
However, in the last week, Taha has taken to becoming a goal scorer himself.
Earlier in the season, Taha had four goals in a game against Bayonne and two against Hudson County Tournament champion, but in the past week, Taha has become a major scoring threat.
Taha had one goal and one assist against Bayonne, then had three goals and an assist against Snyder and poured in three goals and four assists in the Hawks’ 9-0 victory over Roselle Catholic in the opening round of the NJSIAA Non-Public B state tournament last Monday.
For his efforts, Taha has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Taha said that he is not pleased with his performance this season.
“Actually, I’m kind of disappointed, because I know I can do better,” Taha said. “There are balls that I should have been able to play. When I didn’t make a play, I put my head down and got angry. If I kept my head up and stayed focused, I could have scored more.”
Dos Santos is on the same page.
“I happen to agree with him,” dos Santos said. “He’s just getting his feet wet in high school soccer. I expect him to do what Ariel has done. He’s had to become a bigger contributor lately and he’s done it. In the beginning of the season, Pape had to play in the back because we needed him there. Now, others have gotten healthy and he’s moved up. He’s been able to show the quality of play and his talents.”
Taha’s parents are from Senegal in western Africa, but he was born in the United States. And yes, that’s his real name. No nickname. He’s Pape as in Papi or Poppy.
“I’m named after my Dad’s brother,” Taha said. “Pape is a very common name in Senegal.”
Taha is also a member of the Hudson Catholic boys’ volleyball team, where he plays outside hitter. Taha was asked if he scored more on the soccer field than he does in volleyball.
“I wish I did,” Taha laughed. “Let’s see what I can do next year.”
The coach believes that Taha is a scholarship player.
“Absolutely, I think he’s a [NCAA] Division I talent,” dos Santos said. “He wants to prove himself every day. He welcomes that challenge. He thinks he can do better and that’s good. He has all the tools. He just has to find the right situation for him.”
Taha is ready to receive some college attention.
“I’m looking at colleges now,” Taha said. “And they’re looking at me. My goal is to go pro, but I have to go to college first. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid.”
Needless to say, the kid with the peculiar name is glad to be at Hudson Catholic.
“It’s been life changing,” Taha said. “I’m loving it.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com