Jairo Mendez was asked to best describe how his second season as the Harrison High School baseball head coach has been going.
“Right now, it’s been a roller coaster ride,” said Mendez, the former Kearny High School and Montclair State ace pitcher. “Defensively, we’re making too many mistakes and that has been costing us some games. We lost a lot of seniors from last year, so that has hurt us, but we’ve had others who have definitely stepped up and contributed.”
The Blue Tide owns a 7-6 record now after defeating Wallington, 5-4, in 11 innings on Saturday, thanks to Dustin Huseinovic’s clutch RBI single with two out. The Blue Tide also enjoyed a huge 3-0 shutout win over Clifton last week, with senior left-hander Joshua Williams firing a three-hitter, then knocking in all the team’s runs with a three-run homer.
“Definitely, we have talent,” Mendez said. “We’ve been able to compete and beat some good teams. We just need to be a little more consistent. I’ve been tweaking the lineup a little to get the right mix. It all depends on who’s pitching for the other team.”
As the season approaches the midway mark, Mendez is confident that there are better times ahead.
“I really think that we’re going to be surprising a lot of people down the road,” Mendez said.
Part of the reason for Mendez’s optimism is the pitching of Williams, who has the makings of being a top-flight hurler.
“He has very good pinpoint control,” Mendez said. “He’s crafty. He throws three pitches for strikes and has a good command of the strike zone. He’s also not afraid to challenge hitters. I like the way he throws.”
Junior Marquis Valentin is a right-hander with a ton of promise. Valentin pitched four scoreless innings of relief in the win over Wallington Saturday, allowing just two hits and striking out seven.
“Marquis is a lot like Josh in that he has to throw strikes to be successful,” Mendez said. “He has been very successful so far with his fastball, change-up and curve. We’re focused on them being more mechanically correct with their pitching.”
Junior righty Craig Ruff pitched well in his start against Wallington on Saturday.
Mendez has three other junior righties in Rodney Diaz, Juan Lopez and Felix Calderon.
“It’s definitely a good thing to have these pitchers to work with for more than one year,” Mendez said. “It’s not just for this year. It’s going to give them great experience going into next year.”
The catcher is one of the very best around. Senior Miguel Zorrilla is considered one of the best defensive backstops in northern New Jersey.
“He’s come a long way,” Mendez said. “He’s really stepped up. Coming into this year, I knew we needed more from Miguel. He’s worked very hard. He’s a good student of the game and wants to do whatever it is to make our team better.”
The first baseman is junior Chris Velasquez.
“He’s been hitting the ball well lately,” Mendez said. “We were trying to find him a spot in the lineup and he ended up at first base. He’s still learning the position. He’s very inexperienced there, but he’s working hard, day in and day out.”
Senior Jordan Villalta is the second baseman. Villalta is an excellent athlete.
“He’s very quick,” Mendez said. “He is probably the fastest kid on the team. He understands the game very well.”
Diaz also sees some time at second base.
The shortstop position rotates between pitchers Ruff and Valentin.
“They alternate, depending upon who is pitching,” Mendez said. “Both have been hitting the ball really well.” Ruff sees time at third base as well, along with senior Yordy Alarcon and sophomore Mike O’Donnell, from the talented long line of O’Donnell athletes that have graced Harrison over the years.
Huseinovic, whose older brother, Adam, was a fine football player for the Blue Tide and now plays at Kean, is only a freshman who plays left field.
“I gave him the opportunity to play right away and he’s handling it well,” Mendez said. “We like what we see from him hitting the ball. He had to find a way to get into the lineup.”
Calderon returns to his position as the starting centerfielder. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield and has a fine arm.
“He has very good speed,” Mendez said.
Freshman Julio Ortiz is the starter in right field. Like Huseinovic, Mendez has a ton of faith in the rookie to play varsity ball right away.
“He’s picked up the game very quickly,” Mendez said. “He has proven that he can play at this level this early.”
Junior Andrew Gomez is a player who will see time either in the outfield or at designated hitter.
The Blue Tide roster is filled with youngsters.
“I think it’s very much a virtue to have,” Mendez said. “We just have to be patient. There’s a lot of teaching going on.” Mendez gets help from assistant coach Charles Comprelli, who Mendez called “a tremendous help.”
“Patience is definitely the key with this team,” Mendez said. “With the inexperience, we’ll go through our ups and downs.”
Thus, the wild ride for the Blue Tide.
“Hopefully, these kids can grasp the information we’re giving them and they can get hot at the right time,” Mendez said.
At the very least, the Blue Tide will be competitive in the upcoming Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament, letting the rest of Hudson County realize that there are talented baseball players west of the Hackensack River.
In that respect, Mendez wouldn’t have it any other way.