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Tucked away in the outskirts of one of New Jersey’s most perilous cities for teens, a growing soccer power at Newark East Side hit its stride in 2016, beating heavily favored Seton Hall Prep for its first Essex County Tournament title since 1978.
But before East Side could even dream about hoisting the county tournament trophy, the team, which features players from six different countries, some of whom speak only their native tongue, needed to break language and cultural barriers and become united.
That process began in preseason.
Head coach Jose Periera, who speaks English and Portuguese, separated players into three working groups based on the language they spoke. Each group was led by a senior captain. Kevin Avila worked with the Spanish speaking players, Lucas Moraes with the Portuguese speaking players and Tiago Da Costa, although he is fluent in Portuguese as well, with the players that speak English.
“We all separate in our groups and we all translate,” said Avila, who moved from Ecuador when he was seven. “It’s our job to translate things that coach says like what time practice is and things like that.”
While the groups were being assigned, two of East Side’s players were absent – Walter Hernandez and Jonatas Barbosa Periera. The two strikers spent the preseason working jobs to help support their families.
Hernandez moved from Honduras to Newark in September of 2015 and was not a member of the team until this season.
After getting acclimated with living in the United States, Hernandez reached out to Coach Periera for a chance to join the team.
“Last year I was moving to a new country so I didn’t really know how to adjust or how to become part of the team and talk to the coach,” Hernandez said through a translator.
“This year I had the courage to talk to him because my cousin had a good relationship with the coach so that helped me a lot,” he added, referring to Jose Salinas, East Side’s JV goalkeeper in 2015.
Once school started, Hernandez cut down his hours working with his uncle delivering construction materials, allowing him to take on a more prominent role for East Side. But he still needed to earn his starting spot.
It didn’t take long for the senior forward to have his name penciled into the starting lineup. He recorded his first varsity goal in East Side’s season opening 1-0 win over Livingston. His first hat trick came just a few games later when the Red Raiders beat Columbia, 4-0. Hernandez never cooled off and led East Side with 20 goals in his first and only high school season.
“Walter wasn’t with us in preseason,” team captain Avila said. “I heard other players saying, ‘Walter, Walter’ a lot, but I had never met him. When he came to the first practice during the season I was like, ‘Wow this guy has a lot of talent.’ I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting him to be this good.”
Barbosa Pereira was the other player absent in preseason; he was also headed for star status. The senior was a regular on last year’s varsity squad and his desire to be part of the team, despite having to work, was as evident as ever during preseason.
In the summer, Barbosa Pereira reported for work at Pao da Vida Bakery on Oliver Street in Newark at 5:30 in the morning and got out at 2:30. That didn’t stop him from reporting to East Side’s afternoon practices at 3:30.
“It’s a very hard balance between school, work and soccer,” said Barbosa Pereira, who had nine goals and eights assists in 2016. “I go to school, I work, I practice and I train to prepare myself for the future. It’s hard. I have to work for my family. I have to help support my mother and my family.”
The long days took their toll and his coach could tell.
“I noticed that Jonatas was exhausted,” Coach Pereira said. “We had an a.m. practice that he’d miss, but he’d be at the afternoon practices. He was sluggish because he was so exhausted.”
Coach Periera understood what his players were going through because he went through similar circumstances in his life. The East Side alum moved to America from Portugal when he was 11, excelled with the Red Raiders from 1994-1998, and was the first person in his family to go to college.
“When I tell them that I was the first one in my family to go to college, they might look at me and say, ‘that could be me,’” said Coach Periera, who became head coach six years ago. “I tell them that it’s not easy, but when times get tough, to use use your family and friends to help pick you up…I want to be a difference maker for them because other people were difference makers in my life.”
The coach is not the only person looking to be a difference maker. The atmosphere at East Side encourages students to help their peers, especially ones that are new to the country. East Side’s soccer players take that attitude to heart and are willing to take struggling teammates under their wing and help them without being asked to do so.
“That’s just part of our nature,” Da Costa said. “Since we all come from different countries, we all have been taken under someone’s wing by somebody that was older than us. It’s natural behavior to do that because it’s the right thing to do.”
As new students begin to see the similarities between themselves and their peers, East Side becomes less intimidating and they begin to get involved with the school’s programs; in this case with one of the top soccer teams in the state.
“We have our 2,000 students, so it could be very intimidating coming from another country and not speaking the language,” Coach Pereira said. “Then when you start to look around and a lot of students speak your language whether that is Spanish or Portuguese – when you join the team, now you are going to realize that some of those people are your classmates. Now it’s encouraging them to get active and be part of something.”
Once these players became part of East Side’s soccer team, a magical run followed. They not only claimed the ECT championship, but added a sixth straight Newark Public Schools title to finish one of the school’s most successful seasons, despite falling to Bridgewater-Raritan in the North 2, Group 4 semifinals, with a 17-2-1 record.
While the accolades proved how good this team was on the field, overcoming the barriers they faced in 2016 showed how close it became off the field. Whether players were from Honduras, El Salvador, Portugal, Ecuador, Brazil or even tiny Cape Verde, off the West African coast, once they put on a Red Raiders jersey, they were part of a family.
“It’s fun having all these guys from different countries,” Da Costa said. “You get to learn their cultures and get to be a part of it. We’ll come home from a win and we’ll be playing Spanish music and all be dancing with the Spanish kids. Then we’ll play Brazilian music and be dancing with the Brazilian kids. It’s just fun to get along with everyone.”