By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School baseball team had a very uncharacteristic 8-15 record in 2012.
That mark is expected to change a year later.
Frank Bifulco is over the nervous jitters that come with being a first-year head coach. Like his young team, Bifulco chalked up last season to a learning experience for everyone.
“We had a very young team with not a lot of varsity experience,” Bifulco said. “We started off strong, going 5-1, and then we just had a collapse. We all learned a lot since last season.”
For one, the Kardinals played American Legion baseball together in the summer.
“We held our own playing against older competition,” said Bifulco, a former Kearny High standout and member of the 2002 team that played for the NJSIAA Group IV championship. “I think the kids found their stride a little toward the end of the summer playing together all summer. That was huge. It led to playing a lot for each other and we took what we learned and built on it.”
Because of that, Bifulco has a better feeling about this year’s team.
“A lot of the kids have higher expectations this year, because we have a lot of kids returning,” Bifulco said. “We really had a great offseason, so that helps. They’re playing a little better and that helps with development and confidence. We worked hard in the offseason with our weight training. Now, it’s just a matter of playing. Our main goal is to be at mid-season form when we open.”
It won’t be easy for the Kardinals, because they open the season on the road against two perennial Hudson County powers, namely Hoboken April 2 and Memorial April 4 before coming home to face Butler on April 6.
One of the top Kardinal players will be senior Albin Niedzielski, who is a fine righthanded pitcher and shortstop when he’s not on the mound. Niedzielski moved away with his family last year, but he’s now returned, bigger and stronger.
“He throws a good fastball and good change-up,” Bifulco said. “He throws hard and has good control.”
Another top hurler is senior Kyle MacConchie, who returns from last season.
“Kyle throws the ball hard and has nice off-speed pitches,” Bifulco said. “He has the most experience on the team and wants the ball, which I like.”
Senior Eric Greenlee is the team’s lone left-handed pitcher. Greenlee, who was also the starting quarterback on the football team in the fall, has great command of his curve ball.
“He has one of the best curves I’ve seen,” Bifulco said. “When he’s under control, he’s a very good pitcher. He doesn’t like failing. He’s not overpowering with his speed, but he can beat you if he’s on.”
Junior Bryan Rowe is another quality hurler, as is sophomore Josue Rodriguez.
“I really think we will do fine with our pitching depth,” Bifulco said. “We’re going to be able to piece games together.”
The catcher is junior T.J. Witt, who returns behind the dish after a year’s sabbatical.
“He’s going to be fine back there,” Bifulco said.
Last year’s catcher, Ryan Michaels, who batted better than .400 last season, has now been moved to third base.
Junior Steven Dyl, the starter at first base for most of last season, returns there. Rowe, who had moments of absolute brilliance at second base a year ago, returns to that position as well, meaning the Kardinals have strength on the left side of the infield.
Niedzielski, who is a good hitter, will play shortstop when he’s not on the mound. Rodriguez will also fill in there.
Michaels has not missed a beat at third base.
“They’re all showing signs that they can be solid players,” Bifulco said.
Senior Anthony Oliveira returns to his left field slot, with senior Brandon Vilar in center.
“He’s the pulse of the team,” Bifulco said of Vilar. “He’s the one who makes us go.”
Greenlee will return to his spot in right field, so the Kardinals do have a ton of experience.
The Kardinals have been bolstered by the play of two freshmen, namely Richard Joa, an outfielder, and Joseph Baez, an infielder.
“They’re both going to play,” Bifulco said. “If they’re both with us, then they have to play. Joa also has some promise on the mound. Baez is a very smooth fielder who loves to play. They both have a lot of promise. I’m looking forward to see what they can do.”
Others who will see time include senior outfielders David Vizcaino and Nick Santos, juniors Brandon Florek, Franklin Salcedo and Ryan Crespo and sophomore Aaron Gonzalez.
Bifulco is optimistic about his team.
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Bifulco said. “We just have to go out there and play. But I like the makeup of the team. The pieces to the puzzle are there.”
Count on the Kardinals to be much improved this season.