By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After two highly successful seasons, ones that saw his program win a total of 42 games, Belleville head baseball coach Joe Sorce now brings the Buccaneers to new heights – namely the highly competitive American Division of the Super Essex Conference.
It means that the Buccaneers will face teams like Seton Hall Prep, Livingston, Montclair and neighboring rivals Bloomfield and Nutley in the regular season.
“I look at it as a big challenge,” said Sorce, who guided the Buccaneers to a 19-7 record last season. “We’re the only team to jump up two divisions. So we’re excited about it.”
The Bucs were 23-4 and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinals in 2013 and posted a 19-7 mark a year ago. “We had a good team last year,” Sorce said. “The returning players are excited about the challenge.” The Bucs lost to Passaic in the second round of the state playoffs last year and fell to Verona in the second round of the Greater Newark Tournament.
Sorce realizes that it has been tough for the Buccaneers to prepare for the 2015 season with the fierce weather conditions that have engulfed the area recently, especially an early spring snowstorm last week.
There’s only so much that a baseball team can do inside a gymnasium.
“We’re doing a lot of fundamental work, doing drills,” Sorce said. “Our pitchers just pitched live to hitters against Westfield. I like where we’re at right now, given the situation with the weather. We will get to know a lot more in the coming week.”
Sorce said that the Bucs have scrimmages slated for every day prior to the season opener next Wednesday against Millburn. The Bucs also have opening week games slated against top teams Lodi and Livingston, so Sorce will know a lot more about his team in the weeks to come.
Leading the way is senior right-hander Steven Basantes, who missed most of last season with a broken wrist.
Basantes will also play second base when he’s not pitching.
Senior left-hander Quazyre Smith is another of the Belleville pitching staff.
Sorce likes the way Smith has been throwing the ball so far this season. When he’s not pitching, Smith will play the outfield.
Senior right-hander Nick Bruno is another veteran member of the Belleville pitching staff.
“He’s done some good varsity work for us,” Sorce said. “I’m looking for those three to lead us.”
Sophomore right-hander Brayan Villar has been very promising and will more than likely be the fourth member of the Buccaneers’ starting staff.
Junior Adrian Alaracon is a left-hander with a huge upside. Sorce believes that Alaracon could serve as the Buccaneers’ main relief hurler this spring.
Senior Gio Vega is another right-hander who will get his chance to pitch this spring for the Bucs.
“We like the depth we have in our pitching staff,” said Sorce, noting that he will need pitching depth once the games begin to back up in late April and early May.
Sorce is fortunate to have the Walicky twins back for another season. The Walicky twins, juniors Dylan and Dustin, have been varsity starters since they were freshmen.
Dylan Walicky is a strong defensive catcher who was the Buccaneers’ leading hitter last year, hitting better than .420.
“He’s also a strong defensive catcher,” Sorce said. “I think he’s one of the best in the county. He threw out 75% of the runners who tried to steal on him last year.”
Dustin Walicky is a mainstay in the infield, playing both first base and third base.
Together, they form one of the most formidable 1-2 punches in the SEC.
Junior Allen Cruz will see time at both second base and shortstop. Junior Andrew Baez is a solid second baseman who will fit in according to whoever takes the mound that day.
The outfield also has some depth and quality.
Senior John Castro is a mainstay from last year’s team. Castro batted .500 in limited duty last season.
Seniors Mike Guercio and Gerard Cinolo will also get serious playing time in the Buccaneers’ outfield.
Sophomores Sam Abreu and Branden Basantes, the younger brother of Steven, have been very impressive in the offseason for the Bucs. They both will see playing time in the outfield, but the younger Basantes will also play first base, third base and pitcher.
Senior Luis Florencio is a solid defensive catcher who serves as a backup to Dylan Walicky and will spell Walicky from time to time, allowing Walicky to be the Bucs’ designated hitter.
“I like the makeup of our team,” Sorce said. “We had a good summer (playing American Legion baseball) and we have a good group of kids.”
But Sorce knows that the Buccaneers will have to scrape and claw for everything this season.
“It’s going to be a competitive battle every day,” Sorce said. “We have to bring our ‘A’ game every single day. Every day is a battle. I just have to make sure that each day is a productive day, that we keep moving forward. But I’m really excited about this team.”
The Buccaneers will certainly be a team to watch all spring, provided that the weather eventually warms up and the snow finally melts.