NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ--Some critics say this is a re-building year for the NBHS Zebras boys soccer team, in light of the absence of some of their top players from last year's 20-2 team.
This includes Golden Boot winner Kevin Sanchez, Jason Zarate, Raul Galindo, Alexis Narvaez, Arlin Martinez, Carlos Santos, Adam Sarmiento, Kevin Canseco, and Claudio Guzman.
These players were responsible for 104 of the 115 goals scored last season.
Yes, they lost a lot of talent, but this team has depth. Last year, both the Freshman and J.V. teams won their respective Greater Middlesex Conference tournaments, giving up only one loss each all season long.
Coaches Rafael Castillo and Jimmy Piñeda are also back with the Zebras, and both are soccer experts who can provide the bilingual support some of their players need.
Kelvin Ortiz, Marcos Peña, Kevin Reyes and Evaristo Solano are now the veterans who will be expected to lead this team.
Abel Cabrera, Dalber Inostroza, and Felix Rojas provide previous varsity experience, while Oscar Dominguez, Jordy Gomez and Rodney Fernandez are expected to learn fast.
Leaving early last season to play for the New York Red Bulls Academy, the return of William Rojas should make the Zebras season even more promising.
Now, the team has to get familiar with each other and understand how one another plays.
Rojas scored in his first game back with the team, along with Rodney Fernandez who made his varsity debut with a game winning goal in overtime, taking down #15 South Brunswick, the team predicted to win the Red Division.
Already, this seems all too familiar.
Heading into the Hub City on September 10 for the Zebras' second match of the season was St. Joseph's High School, a respected school in the Red Division with 4th-year head coach Brian Jenkins, who has been with the team for 15 years.
Heat was an important factor, as both coaches were constantly subbing players in and out, hoping to pace them for a long and hard-fought match.
The competitive nature on both sides made for a match soccer fans always desire to watch. It was physical, exciting, and had spectators reacting throughout.
St. Joe's struck first blood midway through the first half with some beautiful passing and teamwork leading the team's striker, Oliveira, to run onto a pass from midfield.
Far right just outside the edge of the box, he was able to create space between himself and defender Oscar Dominguez, using some finesse moves.
He then took a fast shot, which deflected off of a defender's head, before making an unpredictable bounce impossible for Jomar Vizcaino to save, and putting St. Joe's on top 1-0.
Thanks to great defending from the Falcons' defense, anchored by Matt Pinho and Ryan Brede, the Zebras couldn't get good shot attempts. When they did, goalkeeper Christian Owens, who was making his varsity debut, would make last minute saves.
St. Joe's was up 1-0 at the half.
A few minutes into the second half, midfielder Dan Disarro from St. Joe's was removed from the game after picking up his second yellow card. St. Joe's now had to play a man down for the rest of the match.
This is when the Zebras smelled blood in the water and were able to take advantage.
At first St. Joe's held strong, making it seem as though nothing changed. As one spectator put it, "You guys are letting them play like they have 11 men on the field!"
Soon enough, though, the Zebras began clicking on offense, and they were able to score twice within the span of seven minutes.
Kelvin Ortiz found himself on the left flank. With two defenders on him, he pulled a fast crossover to send a cross inside the box.
Headed out by St. Joe's, the ball landed directly towards Marcos Peña who pounced on it, ripping it past the defense and in for the Zebras' first goal, tying the game at 1-1.
The Zebras kept the momentum and continued working cohesively, making smart passes and keeping it away from St. Joe's.
William Rojas would then find Rodney Fernandez on the run. With defenders chasing him, he rapidly fired a shot 18-yards away. A grounder, it zipped past the goalkeeper to take the lead 2-1.
Once the official called for a break between the third and fourth quarters, being it was too hot to play a continuous game, St. Joe's had time to recuperate, resting and drawing up a game plan to get back into the game.
Once the final quarter started, St. Joe's attacked in full stride, working as a team and getting multiple shots on goal. It was as though the Zebras were now the ones tired and down a man.
With five minutes left in the game, a player from St. Joe's was taken down just inside the box.
Stepping up to take it would be Tour'e Reaves. With great composure and poise, he shuffled while running to get Inostroza off-balance, then easily placed the ball in the net, tying the game at 2-2.
When asked about his mindset once his team was down a man, Tour'e Reaves said, "I felt like we could still push through this because we are a fighting team. They're my brothers and we all fight together."
In extra-time, both teams were exhausted, but continued to battle.
St. Joe's nearly won with a shot which deflected off the right post.
The Zebras return to action at home on September 13.