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Union City: Success on the rooftop

The “can-do” attitude seems to be working pretty well at Union City (N.J.) High School.

The football/baseball stadium at Union City (N.J.) High School is located on the roof of the school

There are many unique pieces to the story of the Union City community, its high school and its football program, including:

* The city, with a population of 66,455, is situated across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan and New York City via the Lincoln Tunnel. As of the 2010 Census it was the most densely populated city in the United States with a density of 51,810.1 per square mile.

* Union City has a large Hispanic population, pegged at 84.7 percent in the 2010 Census. At one point, it boasted the nation’s second-largest Cuban population (behind Miami). Union City has been known as the “Havana on the Hudson.”

* Union City High School is a conglomeration of two closed high schools, Emerson and Union Hill. Between the main campus, the freshman academy and the Academy for Enrichment and Advancement, the high school boasts roughly 3,600 students between grades nine and 12.

* The new high school building was constructed on the site of the old Roosevelt Stadium football field. The $136 million project, opened in 2009, is notable because the new athletic complex is located on the roof of the school.

* The football program led by coach Wil Vadez has made some big strides, reaching the New Jersey North Section 5 state semifinals the last three years. The Soaring Eagles have also produced some top college prospects, including 2011 offensive line signee Josue Matias with Florida State. Offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez is considered a national top-100 prospect for 2015.

Traditional racial stereotypes would dictate that a Hispanic community would produce athletes who excel in baseball and/or soccer. But Union City athletic director Dave Clauser said there is a passion for football in the community.

“There is a tremendous hunger,” Clauser said. “Most people have a stereotype that Latinos are soccer players. There is so much hunger and thirst for success in football in this town. It’s unbelievable.”

Josue Matias, a 2011 Union City graduate, starts on the offensive line at Florida State

Valdez will be back for his fifth season as the UCHS head football coach this fall. He agreed that football has had a galvanizing effect on the city.

“Being that Union City is predominantly a Hispanic area, athletically it hasn’t become a deficiency,” he said. “We have some pretty good Hispanic athletes. Usually you may hear about them on the baseball field as opposed to football.

“But we do have some kids who aspire to be football players and possibly some nice prospects as well.”

Clauser said that the success on the field correlates with improvement on the academic side as well. Union City was among 30 districts in New Jersey that were previously short-changed in state funding, he said. As that funding disparity has been remedied, the district’s faculty and students have shown tremendous improvement.

“Typically, those districts have been known as underachieving,” Clauser said. “Well, in the last four years Union City High School has hit every one of the No Child Left Behind testing standards.

“We’re tasting a lot of success athletically, academically and artisitically. Next, the big challenge is to sustain that. We have to take that achievement to the next level. When Urban Meyer was at Florida, he pointed out that building a program is not as challenging as it is to sustain a number one team at the top year after year.

“We’re not number one. That’s a challenge we face.”

The culture of football could be ready for a big boost across New Jersey with Rutgers moving to the Big Ten next year. Rutgers is coming off its first Big East championship season in 2012. The move to the Big Ten – known historically for its emphasis on football – could help promote the sport in the Garden state, Valdez said.

OL Steven Gonzalez is a national top-100 prospect in the 2015 class with a ton of top offers already

“It could go either way,” he said. “It could also be detrimental if Rutgers enters the Big Ten and flops. It can be a big deal if they can be successful in the Big Ten. It’s a roll of the dice. It will be a great story. It will be a frenzy if they do well in the Big Ten.

“I have confidence in that staff. If they keep New Jersey’s kids home to play here, I think they could be very competitive.”

Stadium On The Rooftop

When the decision was made to consolidate the two high schools, school officials looked for creative ways to maximize their space out of necessity.

“Union City is the most densely populated city north of Mexico City,” Clauser said. “So when the old Roosevelt Stadium was torn down, if Union City was to have both a new high school and an athletic field there had to be some out-of-the-box thinking. That meant that the field had to go on the roof of the school.

“There had been an assistant superintendent who, when he had coached for St. Peter’s University against Georgetown, they had a football field on top of a parking deck. We adapted that kind of solution to our circumstances.”

The rooftop stadium has FieldTurf with a configuration for a football and baseball field. There is one large grandstand down the first base line for baseball which is used for both sports. listed the new stadium as one of the nation’s top 10 high school baseball stadiums.

“Number one, it is a novelty,” Clauser said. “But number two, inside the classrooms as well as our athletic facility, it’s all state-of-the-art. In March, everybody wants to come here for a baseball scrimmage because we have turf – even though it is up on the third floor and it’s windy as all get out, the attraction outweighs the disadvantages.

“In the fall, football teams want to play here because of the novelty. The fact we’re playing better football adds to the attraction.”

Valdez said he has heard jokes about athletes chasing errant passes or foul balls off the side of the roof, not that has or ever will happen.

“The only thing we worry about is kicking the ball over the edge (on extra points),” Valdez said. “In baseball, there are foul balls. Safety is not an issue up there. There is a beautiful view of the New York skyline at night when we play. We get close to 3,000 fans at our games, which makes it a nice atmosphere.

“It is a unique place to play a football game. But it is a beautiful thing.”

Building A Program

Valdez talked about the slow build of the Union City football program as Emerson and Union Hill high schools were consolidated.

“They were both pretty decent high school football programs here in Hudson County,” Valdez said. “When they were combined to build Union City High School, many people expected it to be a football powerhouse. We have not been that yet, but we are working toward that direction.”

The school was 9-11 in its first two years of existence. Since then, the Soaring Eagles have gone 21-11 with three straight state semifinal appearances and wins over several of the state’s top programs.

“We’ve defeated state ranked schools such as West Orange and Roxbury,” Valdez said. “We’ve beaten North Bergen three years in a row when there was a drought of 11 years where Union City had not beaten North Bergen. A lot of special things have happened in a short period of time. It’s been a big turnaround.”

High school fans have debated the competitive balance issue between public and private schools for decades. But Valdez said Union City will not use that as a crutch as it pursues an elusive state title.

“We’ve played St. Peter’s the last three years and maybe gave them a good game each of those years,” Valdez said. “But this is a public school with a 1.7 mile radius to pick our kids. Whether it’s a Group 5 school or not, we don’t have the luxury that these powerhouses like St. Peter’s and Paramus Catholic and Don Bosco Prep that can take the best of the best throughout the state.

“If you go through St. Peter’s roster, they have kids are throughout the state of Jersey. Believe me, they are the best kid from their city. It is an advantage when you can shop for what you want. We don’t. We work with whoever walks into the building. We develop them to be the best they can be. That’s worked pretty good for us.”

Clauser said the Union City community seems to be in lock step from the lower levels through the varsity with one common goal in mind.

“From Pop Warner up through the high school … Pop Warner has some kind of great turnout each year,” Clauser said. “We get about 50 kids a year out for freshman football. Right now, we’re trying to put everything together so Coach Valdez can move us out of the semis and into the finals.

“The people, the parents, the kids, the mayor, the superintendent, a lot of people are extremely interested and invested in seeing us succeed.”

He added, “Our school mascot is the Soaring Eagles and we are expected to soar to new heights academically, artiscally and athletically.”

Top Prospects Coming

Matias, listed at 6-6 and 326 pounds, has made 15 career starts for Florida State, where he is pegged as the starting left guard heading into his junior year. He was a national top-247 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.

“I think before the combination of the schools, the recruiters always went to Emerson and Union Hill,” Valdez said. “Those programs had kids who played Division I ball as well. Josue was the first Division I prospect after the schools combined and we did get a lot of attention for that.”

Three current team members have attracted some attention from recruiters. In the rising senior class, offensive lineman David Allen (6-5, 270) has an offer from Fordham and is getting attention from other FCS schools.

Two rising juniors are perking the interest of coaches from FBS schools, including Gonzalez and wide receiver Daiquan Kelly.

The 6-3, 200-pound Kelly has offers from Virginia and Massachusetts. Valdez said Rutgers could also be close to offering.

The plum, though, is the 6-5, 305-pound Gonzalez, ranked as the nation’s No. 55 prospect overall, No. 3 offensive guard and No. 2 prospect in New Jersey for 2015 by He already boasts offers from the likes of Rutgers, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Boston College, South Carolina and Louisville.

“Right now, I will wait till my senior year to make a decision,” Gonzalez said. “I want to see how the offers come in.”

Gonzalez talked about what makes the Union City program special.

“Once Coach Valdez came and his staff came, he switched everything up,” he said. “This team has been a playoff team the last three years. I think this program is up and coming. The athletic director gets us a lot of things that are beneficial to us.

“If a kid can keep his grades up, he can have a chance if he wants to try and succeed. If they want to be great and play at the next level, you can do that here at Union City. You just have to try. We have a free education and a great staff here with our teachers and administration. We have a good principal. I think Union City is the place to go.”

Gonzalez said the Soaring Eagles have big plans for the upcoming season.

“For this year, our goal is to win the state championship,” he said. “We feel like we have all of the pieces in place to win the state championship. Maybe the maturity level needs to change and we need to become more mature and more disciplined. But that can come easily. This is the year that we have to win it.”

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