By Sean Farrell
The alarm sounded at the crack of dawn, sending Luis Portillo out of bed.
Sunrise wouldn’t be for another hour in the city of Paterson, but it was time for Portillo to get to work. His wake-up call around 5 a.m. left him an hour to eat breakfast and catch the bus to Pennington Park.
That summer routine happened over and over, shaping one of the season’s best success stories.
Portillo is a sophomore at International High, but he plays soccer for Kennedy. He also happens to be near the top of the scoring race in New Jersey.
“It would be great to put Kennedy on the map,” Portillo said. “That’s the No. 1 priority.”
For the last decade, Kennedy has been nothing more than a blip on the radar. In that span, the Knights have had six different coaches and not one winning season. Portillo is determined to change that this year with 17 goals for the Knights (5-3).
His team plays the kind of possession game that everyone talks about, but few can pull off. The excitement around town is palpable.
“When you remind them that we are from Paterson, they are proud,” coach Richard Solis said. “Every time we step onto the field, that’s exactly what they want to show you. We know how to play. We love the game. And we want to have fun.”
Portillo is making it pretty easy to have fun at Kennedy. He scored five goals in the season opener and three more in the following game against Bergen Tech.
Whenever teammates want an assist, they can scan the field for his bright green cleats. The kid with the big smile and even bigger shot will take care of the rest.
“The best part about him is he’s really humble,” senior forward Juan Esteban Cornejo said. “That’s what I love about him. He can be the best player on the field, but he will still push everyone forward and hype everyone up.”
Success doesn’t seem to get to Portillo’s head.
For a while, he insisted that the captains take the penalties before teammates convinced him otherwise. Portillo has developed a close bond with many of them with the Paterson-based Unisamba FC, where he plays up a level. Soccer has been his only sport since falling in love at age 5.
“I don’t remember but my parents told me that I saw a ball and all I wanted to do is play,” Portillo said.
Inside the rebuild
A few years ago, no one could have imagined this level of success at Kennedy. After all, the Knights finished with a single win in six of the last 10 seasons. As the losses began to pile up, so did the coaching changes on Preakness Ave.
Solis knew that reality when he took over in 2018, but still pressed on after a 1-12 debut season. He stressed playing simple soccer and keeping the ball on the ground. His work was validated last year when the Knights reached the .500 level.
“I love the game. I love the city. And when I was looking at these kids, how can you not love those kids?” Solis said. “Those kids are putting in everything. At least they deserve someone who is also going to put everything in.”
The scariest part about Kennedy is its untapped potential. Only five of its 30 goals this season have come from seniors. The foundation is in place for multiple years with a core led by Portillo, Christopher Chavarria, Erick Cuellar and goalie Brandon Parra.
Teams are starting to realize that the Knights are no joke. Of their three losses, two are to No. 1 Clifton.
“I remember a lot of high schools inviting us to Senior Night because normally you invite the easy team,” Solis said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. We didn’t get any invitations this year. That tells you a lot.”
Changing the culture
Discipline was a big priority for Solis upon taking the job. There are attendance checks each morning and a visit from assistant Alfredo Serrano to ensure that players follow the dress code. Solis, a TV production teacher at Kennedy, also warned them that they needed to pass every class in order to play on the team.
Over the summer, the Knights held practices at 6 a.m. from Monday through Friday at Pennington Park. Solis knows that can be a challenge for players who live across town by Route 20, but a rule is a rule.
“Once I didn’t wake up for two days straight and I got in trouble really bad,” Portillo admits. “I had to run for like the whole week.”
Portillo is part of a diverse coalition on the Knights. He’s one of three players on the roster who studies at International. Kennedy also has four from HARP Academy, one from PANTHER Academy and one from Garrett Morgan.
Once the Knights take the field, that divide seems to go away. All that matters is the team and the city it represents.
“It’s not easy to have kids from so many different academies,” Solis said. “But you put them together and you feel like all of these kids go to the same school. You get that feeling. But no, they come from all different parts of Paterson. That’s what I’m proud of. We were able to build a team.”