By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Kearny High School baseball team won 13 games last spring, but head coach Frank Bifulco knows that the Kardinals will be vastly improved over a year ago.
“I think we can build on what we did last year,” said Bifulco, who enters his fourth year as head coach. “Hopefully, we can continue to rise. We’re not taking any steps back. We have a team that can contend and the kids believe that as well. We can’t hide anymore. Things are a little different now than what we’re used to. The expectations are higher.”
The Kardinals welcome back junior left-hander Corey Sawyer, who made a huge splash last season. Sawyer won four games and posted a 1.27 earned run average, but three of the wins were memorable, because he fired a perfect game and two no-hitters.
“It was nice that he threw three no-hitters last year, but that means nothing now,” Bifulco said. “He has work to do and needs to continue. I think he’s become more of a complete pitcher. He’s made major strides in the offseason. He’s worked on all of his pitches and he’s ready to control the game.”
Senior Josue Rodriguez is also back. The right-handed Rodriguez won three games last year.
“He knows he hasn’t pitched his ‘A’ game yet,” Bifulco said. “He came in last year as our ace and has the ability to be our ace. With those two guys, Corey and Josue, we feel we match up with anyone else in the county. We expect to win when they pitch. Josue pitches to his strength and leads by example.”
Junior Connor McClelland is the team’s next best starter. The right-handed McClelland is a talented hurler with a lot of potential.
“We’re looking for him to step up and take some of the slack off Corey and Josue,” Bifulco said. “He’s going to be a good pitcher.”
So will sophomore righty Ryan Tully, who has all the talent in the world, both on the mound and at the plate.
Senior lefty Louis Sandomenico and senior righty Adam French round out the extremely deep pitching staff.
“I like the depth we have,” Bifulco said. “The younger ones are going to come. We know we have guys who can throw and can be successful.”
The team’s catcher is senior Aaron Gonzalez, who spent last year as the backup to former Kardinal standout T.J. Witt.
The first base duties will be shared by senior Johnathon Silva and junior Joseph Esteves. Both have shown promise during the limited preseason workouts and scrimmages.
French will spend most of his time at second base.
Junior Joseph Baez, the leading scorer on the Kearny basketball team this winter, is the baseball team’s shortstop.
“He’s a very good baseball player,” Bifulco said. “He just needs to stay focused and needs to stay composed all the time. If he can understand that, we’re going to be a much better team.”
Rodriguez will play third base when he’s not pitching. He batted .372 last year.
Senior Mike Hyde is the starting left fielder. Hyde batted better than .330 last year, but more importantly he had a .615 on base percentage.
“When he gets on base, a lot of good things can happen for us,” Bifulco said. “He’s our leadoff hitter or No. 2 hitter. He’s become a nice leader for us. The rest of the team naturally gravitates to him.”
Sawyer will play centerfield when he’s not on the mound. When Sawyer is pitching, junior John O’Neill mans centerfield.
McClelland plays right field. He batted .325 as a sophomore last year.
Junior Benedict Cowan, Jr. is the Kardinals’ resident jack-ofall- trades, seeing time in the outfield and as a designated hitter.
“I’m looking for him to do a nice job with his role,” Bifulco said.
The Kardinals also have Alex Molina playing a utility role and Zak Mostafa as the team’s back-up catcher and another utility bench player.
The aforementioned Tully will serve a key role, not only as a pitcher, but as a second baseman and shortstop as well.
“He can play any position well,” Bifulco said. “I think good teams need to have good bench players. I think we have guys off our bench who can help us.”
The Kardinals are slated to open the 2015 season against Memorial Wednesday at 4 p.m. They also face St. Anthony Friday and square off against neighboring rival Harrison Saturday afternoon. It pits former teammates and close friends Bifulco and Jairo Mendez against each other. Mendez is the head coach at Harrison.
“Anything I miss, Jairo lets me know,” Bifulco said.
The Kardinals have a ton of potential.
“The expectations are high,” Bifulco said. “I expect us to make a deep run in the county tournament. I know we can do better in the states. They know what’s expected of them. They know they have promise. We have a good lineup, good pitching. We also have a tough schedule, so we have to see what happens.”
Count on the Kardinals to be more of a regular competitive force in the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League and the NJSIAA state playoffs.