By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
After spending last spring away from coaching softball for the first time in more than 20 years, Carmine Ronga knew one thing. He was bored silly.
“I was sitting around the house and doing nothing,” said Ronga, who was the head softball coach at Hoboken High School for a quarter century. “I was going out of my mind.”
Ronga said that he religiously reads the local papers and saw advertisements for schools looking for a softball coach.
“I applied for some of them and I got a lot of reactions from them,” said Ronga, who won his share of HCIAA Seglio Division championships and Hoboken’s first-ever NJSIAA state sectional championship back in 2007. “Out of all the schools that contacted me, Harrison was the most intriguing.”
Ronga admitted that he didn’t know much about Harrison.
“I was unaware of the school’s facilities,” Ronga said. “When I first came out to the school, I didn’t realize it was brand new. I just fell in love with the place on first sight. I felt so comfortable here, so that’s why I took the job.”
So despite the fact that the Blue Tide won all of five games last year, Ronga was ready for the next chapter in his coaching life.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Ronga said. “But I was looking for a place that would interest me, a place that would get my juices flowing again. It was a great fit. The school wants to have a competitive softball program. Kim (McDonough-Huaranga, the school’s athletic director) is enthusiastic about wanting to have a good softball program. I was taken aback by the facility. It’s the best kept secret in Hudson County. It’s conducive to bringing the best student/ athletes out to play softball.”
Added Ronga, “It’s going to be a work in progress, but I feel that there’s a lot of promise here.”
One of the things that Ronga requested was to start a softball program in the middle school. That has been taken care of, with former Harrison basketball and softball standout Kim Nicosia Morillo taking over those reins.
“I wanted to be able to change the culture a little with making softball a good alternative for the girls,” Ronga said. “The turnout was fantastic. We had 57 girls try out for the high school teams and another 30 or so were there for the middle school. That’s a tremendous turnout for a school this size. So the interest is definitely there. Hopefully, we can keep the interest there.”
Ronga has already thoroughly enjoyed his time with the girls of Harrison.
“It’s really brought me back to life,” Ronga said. “The kids are like sponges. They want to learn. They hustle for everything. They all have great attitudes. It makes it a pleasure to go to practice every day. They’re so enthusiastic. They bought into our strategy and philosophy. It’s really a great bunch of kids.”
Ronga said that he has inherited six players back from last year’s team that struggled.
“But they have come in with a new attitude,” Ronga said. “Maybe it’s because there’s a new coach and it’s a new team. I don’t know.”
Ronga has yet to decide on a No. 1 pitcher just yet. He’s still looking at senior Fayth Hartkopf and sophomore Alexia Garrison.
“It’s pretty even right now between the two of them,” Ronga said. “Right now, I’ll split them. It all comes down to who throws more strikes. That one will get the nod.”
The catcher is senior Gina Miranda, who has the perfect makeup to be a backstop. She’s energetic and alive behind the dish.
“She’s also a very good athlete,” Ronga said.
Senior Kayla Ortiz is the team’s first baseman and she has a distinction.
“We call her ‘The General,’ because she’s the one in charge,” Ronga said. “She’s definitely the team leader. I can see her someday becoming a coach. That’s how much she’s into it. She really helps me out.”
Senior Renee Clifford is the team’s second baseman, moving over from shortstop where she played last year.
Sophomore Betzaida Gutierrez is a newcomer, a transfer from South America who has really grabbed Ronga’s heart and attention.
“She’s probably our best athlete,” Ronga said. “She’s super fast.”
Freshman Jailyn Montilla is the third baseman. She’s one of three Montilla sisters on the Harrison softball roster this season.
Junior Destiny Martinez is the leading candidate to start in left field, although Garrison might get the nod if she’s not pitching.
Senior Kayla Montilla is the Blue Tide’s centerfielder. She’s the second of the three sisters and maybe the most talented.
“I think she can be our best all-around player,” Ronga said. “She has a lot of speed. She’s our leadoff hitter, so she has to get on base. She has a great personality and she’s a pleasure to coach.”
The third sister is right fielder Abigail Montilla, who is a junior. You know the old saying, “Three is better than one.” Well, it fits for Ronga and the Blue Tide.
The Blue Tide has a host of players to call from on the bench, namely senior infielder Arianna Estremera, junior infielder Caitlin Bond and freshman first baseman Chelsea Ramos.
Ronga is particularly pleased with freshman Kierrah Lucas, the niece of former Jets quarterback and current TV analyst Ray Lucas.
“She’s just a very good athlete,” Ronga said of Lucas, who will also be developed as a pitcher.
The Blue Tide was scheduled to open their season and the Ronga era against Paterson Charter Wednesday. They then had games with McNair Academic on Saturday and Queen of Peace Monday.
Ronga wanted to give credit to his assistant coaches Danielle Labriola, the former head coach at Ridgefield, Jose Ponjoan and Howard Thompson. He was also happy to find Nicole Smith already teaching at Harrison. Smith was a former standout pitcher during her high school days at North Bergen and beat Ronga’s Hoboken team twice.
“We have good kids and a good staff,” Ronga said. “We’re ready.”