March 31, 2012
Hudson County Varsity's 2012 Baseball Preview
Kenny Roder (lifting the trophy) and Hoboken look to repeat as Hudson County champs. (Photo: Jason Bernstein)
By Jason Bernstein Editorial Director
Stories to Watch in Baseball
The Hudson Arms Race
If any reminder was needed that pitching can carry a team to great heights in high school baseball, one only needs to take a look at the run Hoboken made a year ago.
A seventh seed in the Ed Ford Memorial Tournament, the Red Wings rode the left arms of Kenny Roder and Abe Groomes to a county championship. Roder, the diminutive 5-foot-7 hurler allowed just two runs over three complete games in the tournament and Groomes tossed a complete game in the championship game. Roder added three more wins in the state tournament as Hoboken advanced to the NJSIAA North 2, Group 1 finals.
With both dominant lefties returning, the Red Wings have their eyes set towards a second-straight county championship.
"It is a comforting feeling, especially in my first year (as Hoboken's head coach), to have two legit pitchers on the staff with experience," Jack Baker said. "Both guys have pitched in the big game since early in their careers and it is definitely a big help. Those guys give us a good chance to win every time they go out."
Hoboken, which also expects quality innings from Ric Selleck and Roy De La Cruz is hardly the only team with an impressive collection of mound talent. In a county full of quality pitching, the deepest and hardest throwing group resides in North Bergen with a rotation as deep as any as it has had in recent memory.
"It's unique like no other (North Bergen team)," head coach Patrick Brady said. "We've had some good pitchers in the past like Julian Diaz and Azriel Andrickson, but never so deep in a single year."
North Carolina State-bound righty Gianni Zayas leads the quartet with a low-to-mid 90s fastball he uses to overpower hitters. He is followed by juniors Marco Hernandez and A.J. Gale. Hernandez, a lefty, took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of Ed Ford Memorial Tournament title game vs Hoboken. Gale, a righty, is another Bruin arm who can hit 90 on the radar gun.
North Bergen's "Big Three" has turned into a "Core Four" with the progress of Pasquale Andruela, a junior.
The two county tournament finalists from a year ago aren't the only ones who believe they have the pitching needed for a big run.
St. Peter's Prep returns the duo of hard-throwing righty Mike Doran and left-hander Ryan O'Connor. Marist adds Mark Peralta from St. Mary's to team up with sophomore lefty Matt Littrell.
Weehawken believes they can follow the blueprint of fellow Group 1 school Hoboken and contend for a county championship. The Indians return six starters from a year ago, most notably the junior tandem of lefty Sal Mendez and righty David Strandberg.
"At any level if you have the pitching you're going to be successful," head coach Anthony Stratton said. "Having an ace like (Mendez). We have a solid 1-2 punch with Sal and David Strandberg."
A Changing of the Guard
Four of Hudson County's top programs have new coaches for 2012. Of that group, none has bigger shoes to fill than Memorial's Dan Marroquin. Marroquin, the long-time pitching coach takes over for the late Tony Ferrainolo, the state's all-time wins leader, who passed away in October from lymphoma. Marroquin and Jack Nagurka helped run the team for most of last year as Ferrainolo fought the disease.
Hoboken has a new head man in Jack Baker. The former William Paterson assistant takes over for Buddy Matthews, who skippered the Red Wings to 459 wins over 26 years. In Kearny, Frank Bilfulco takes over for Jim Sickinger, who retired after 16 seasons.
Longtime St. Mary's manager Pat Laguerre's coaching future was in limbo when the Jersey City school closed its doors in June. But Laguerre quickly landed on his feet, moving just a few blocks away to take over at St. Peter's Prep.
Bayonne: The Bees might not have the established pitching of some of their rivals, but with six returning position players, Bayonne has one of the deeper lineups they have had in recent memory.
"This is really a veteran team," long-time head coach Phil Baccarella said. "We don't have a lot of experience on the mound, but out on the field we do have a lot of experience."
A pair of three-year starters in LF/P Joel Abreu and 1B/DH Charles Castellanos lead the returning group for Bayonne. Frank DiPillo moves from third base to shortstop and while only a sophomore has emerged as one of the county's most mature hitters.
"I think any time a hitter is successful, a lot of it goes to knowing the strike zone and not swinging at bad pitches," Baccarella said. "You're always going to get at least one pitch to hit in every at-bat if you're patient. And when he gets his pitch, he hits it. He doesn't swing at pitcher's pitches, he only swings at pitches he can hit and that's a big reason why he's successful."
Dave Jakobowski takes over at third after moving from right field and junior Justin Guthrie returns at second base and Jared Ensmanger is back behind the plate. CF Kyle Greaves and RF Jorge Pagan also have varsity experience.
Castellanos headlines the pitching staff and will be followed by Liam Constantine, Jakobowski, Abreu and Chris Kelly.
Hoboken: Winning a county championship might make some teams complacent heading into the spring. But after finishing one win away from a state sectional title, new head coach Jack Baker doesn't see a team that is content to rest on its laurels.
"I think they definitely love the challenge after being the county champions last year," first year head coach Jack Baker said. "They want another championship because they're seniors and they want to go out as winners. They don't really think of it as pressure, they look at it as a challenge."
The Red Wings are legit contenders for both the county and state title with the return of lefties Kenny Roder and Abe Groomes. Roder has impeccable control to go with stuff bigger than his 5-foot-7 frame would suggest.
Groomes is one of the county's best pure athletes both on the mound and with the bat.
"Kenny has great command of all his pitches," Baker said. "He throws a lot of good strikes and he's the kid who wants the ball. He knows that he wants the baseball when the big game counts. He's always up for the challenge."
Both will be counted on to provide speed and defense when they aren't pitching. Groomes will start in center field and hit third in the lineup. Roder, who will split time between left and center, will hit second. David Montanez starts in right field and football/basketball standout Spencer Perez joins the team and will see plenty of action in left when Roder or Groomes is pitching.
Seniors Connor Milne (3B) and Danny Grossi (SS, hitting cleanup) bring experience and stability to the left side of the infield. Sophomore 2B Isaiah Mateo has impressed in the spring with his speed and will lead off. Fabian Quinones takes over at first base while Danny Baron and freshman Josh Mercado will split the duties at catcher.
Ric Selleck and Roy De La Cruz bring additional depth to the rotation behind Roder and Groomes.
Hudson Catholic: With a young roster predominantly made up of freshmen and sophomores, second year head coach Alberto Vasquez knows his team could face some early rough patches. But there is talent around the diamond that would indicate plenty of reasons for optimism.
"We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores, but they're really listening and they're really taking advantage of everything," Vasquez said. "They're really developing as a team, which is really good to see."
As many as five freshmen/sophomores could be in the starting lineup for the Hawks. Sophomores Matt Bolger (center) and Victor Guzman (right) make up two-thirds of the outfield along with leftfielder Rob Khouzam.
Sophomore Matt Falatico takes over second base with junior Nick Swift at first base. Freshman Chris Garcia is in a heated competition with Ariel Rosario at shortstop and another freshman in Jose Marte is battling with Rory Carvajal at third. Carvajal, a junior is Hudson Catholic's biggest power threat and will see plenty of at-bats, whether its at third, designated hitter or pitcher.
Stephen Price and Zach Ottobre are the catchers with Vasquez saying both should see plenty of at-bats with the way they've hit in the spring.
Senior control specialist Danny Perez headlines the rotation with Swift, Bolger and Carvajal slotting in behind him.
"He just throws strike after strike," Vasquez said about Perez. "He mixes it up real well and is very smart on the mound."
Marist: The Royal Knights got a pair of key additions for 2012. One arrives from just a couple miles away, the other, from more than 1,000 miles removed from the Bayonne school.
Senior Mark Peralta racked up 12 wins over the past three seasons at St. Mary's before the Jersey City school closed its doors this past June. The righty brings a veteran presence at the top of a young rotation.
"He's an ace," head coach Ron Hayward said. "Adding him was real big. I love his attitude. He just plays hard, he doesn't make excuses and he's always trying to be aggressive."
Peralta will be followed in the rotation by poised sophomore Matt Littrell and junior Aaron Smith. Senior Danny Mirabel, another transfer from St. Mary's will be the Royal Knights' top reliever.
Those guys will be throwing to Marist's other big addition in Ian Lagerres. The junior, who moved from Puerto Rico is far from a finished product behind the plate, but the junior has the skills to be one of the county's top backstops.
"In Puerto Rico, they don't really play high school baseball. You can see he's talented. He has an arm, he blocks (the plate), but consistency is his problem. He's good. He has a strong bat, he's a strong baseball player and he's definitely a bonus."
The infield has plenty of experience with a trio of four-year varsity players in 1B Steve Tsugranes, 2B Dereck Edge and SS Tim Rodriguez. Rodriguez moves over from third base with Smith and Peralta both expected to see time there this year.
Angel Perez starts in centerfield with Dahvon Duncan, Josh Witherspoon, Andre Santana and Elijah Hernandez all seeing time in a crowded outfield.
North Bergen: The Bruins were just two outs away from a Hudson County championship a year ago when their dreams were dashed thanks to three seventh inning runs from Hoboken. Nearly a year has passed since then, but it's a bitter taste which remains in North Bergen.
"We seem to be a little more focused than in years past," head coach Patrick Brady said. "A lot of the guys weren't starters, but they were there. They got a taste and they saw unfortunately that we didn't close out the game."
The Bruins look to redeem themselves with a rotation North Carolina State-bound senior Gianni Zayas and juniors Marco Hernandez, A.J. Gale and Pasquale Andruela. Andruela has been the surprise of the preseason and has put himself in position to pitch significant innings this year.
"We always knew he was going to be the No. 4 (starter), but we didn't know how well he was going to do in that role," Brady said. "He's put a lot of time in the offseason and he's really been very effective in the scrimmages and preseason. He's done a great job."
Andruela and Hernandez will also make up a key part of a Bruins lineup with many new faces. Hernandez, a returning starter in right field, will bat cleanup and Andruela, a 1B/DH, will hit fifth. They are joined in the middle of the order by junior catcher Jose Moreno who arrives after playing the previous two seasons at Marist. Moreno will split time with junior Anthony Dabal.
Junior James Rangel will start at first base. Senior Byron Fernandez returns at second base with Gales playing at third when he's not on the mound. Talented sophomore Jeremy Cerda takes over at shortstop for the Bruins. Left fielder P.J. Cardone and center fielder Willie Cruz bring speed at the top of the order.
St. Peter's Prep: New head coach Pat Laguerre understands that expectations are high at the Grand and Warren school, but there's little doubt the Marauders have the talent to compete for a county championship after back-to-back stunning first upsets.
Senior Mike Doran and junior Ryan O'Connor may be polar opposites in terms of pitching style. Doran is a hard-throwing righty and O'Connor is a polished lefty, but despite their on-mound differences, they combine to form one of the area's better one-two combinations.
"I think they're contrasting pitchers," Laguerre said. "Mike is a hard-throwing righty. A big kid and a bull on the mound, a tough competitor. Ryan is an easy-going, smooth lefty with good movement and really good poise on the mound. They're very different."
On offense, the Marauders return three starters in 3B Jack McNulty, RF Jayson Uliano and DH Cesar Valero. Senior CF Richie Pardo brings speed at the top of the order along with LF Brian Githens. Sophomore T.J. Ward starts at first base with seniors Anthony Rinaldi (2B) and Anthony Piolvsky (SS) up the middle.
Prep gets a major addition at catcher with D.J. Wilson, an All-League selection last year while at St. Mary's.
"Right now I think the offense has power potential with bats like Uliano, Githens, Valero and McNulty," Laguerre said. "It's all about getting varsity experience so it might take a little time to make the adjustment."
Union City: Head coach Chip Benway admits he can't remember a season with as much uncertainty this close to opening day, but after graduating more than 10 guys from last year's NJSIAA North 1, Group IV finalist, the Soaring Eagles knew there'd be a lot of new faces.
"It's going to be a huge challenge," Benway said. "You don't only have to replace the quality of ball players that we graduated, but the quality of people. It's going to be a tough challenge to replace those guys."
One place of stability is up the middle with seniors Javier Estevez at second base and Robert Hererra at shortstop. Hererra in particular has emerged as one of the county's top bats and a complete shortstop.
"He's a big, strong kid that can drive the ball," Benway said. "He puts pitchers in a bind since you can't attack him in a specific way since he handles the bat so well."
Jose Tavares is a returning starter at third base and first base is a battle between Sergio Delgado, Kevin Perez and Darwin Ortiz. Harold Maria takes over at catcher.
The outfield features some familiar names, but from their exploits on the gridiron. After not playing the past couple of seasons, seniors Steve Le and Antonio Pacheco have joined the team with Le grabbing the left field spot and Pacheco splitting time with Sayvon Williams and Dan Eema.
"(Le's) developing into quite an outfielder for us," Benway said. "He'll do some pitching and he's dynamic at the top of the lineup. If we can get him on, he'll do some different things for us."
Williams emerged as a trusted member of Benway's staff a year ago and enters 2012 as Union City's ace. Tavares, Le and sophomore Justin Jandik follow in the rotation.
Weehawken: After seeing a fellow Group 1 school in Hoboken slay multiple Group IV giants on their way to a county title, Weehawken enters 2012 thinking why can't they accomplish the same feat. With six returning starters, including their two top arms, the Indians have good reason for the optimism.
"I think we all know that we have something special and I think we all know it's not just going to be handed to us," head coach Anthony Stratton said. "Good things are going to happen if we just play our game."
Only a junior, Sal Mendez has emerged as one of North Jersey's most promising arms with his mid-80s fastball and biting off-speed selections. A strikeout machine, who fanned 13 in the state playoffs vs Dunellen, Mendez is widely regarded as the Indians' ace.
Stratton feels Mendez isn't the only potential ace in his arsenal with junior righty David Strandberg returning as well.
"He's a 6-foot-2 righty, he throws hard. His maturity has just grown tremendously," said Stratton of Strandberg. "He's a real hard worker, he's a bulldgog on the hill and he kind of has a little mean and nasty attitude (when he's pitching)."
Weehawken has further depth behind their co-aces with junior lefty Jimmy McCall, senior Roberto Moran and junior righties Rafael Totesault and Luis Nunez.
The five will be throwing to four-year starter J.J. Pineda behind the plate. Stratton praised Pineda for his defense and leadership on the field as the senior calls his own pitches for this talented young staff.
Mendez and Moran will split time at first base with Moran, a returning starter, hitting cleanup. Kenny Minier returns at second base with the trio of Steven Rodriguez, Miguel Montilla and Mike Maneta battling for time at third base. Junior Dante Cieri, who played at High Tech as a freshman before taking a season off, takes over as Weehawken's shortstop.
Totesault starts in leftfield with Strandberg returning in right and Josh Saenz in center. Nunez, McCall and utility player Nick Steen, who missed the past two seasons with injuries, will also see plenty of at-bats throughout the diamond.