Despite having never played varsity baseball before last week, North Arlington High School sophomore Eric McKenna was extremely confident that he was ready for the challenge.
“I played summer baseball last summer for the New Jersey Juggernauts (an 18-and-under AAU travel team based out of Mahwah),” McKenna said. “It was pretty tough competition, but it prepared me.”
The 15-year-old McKenna pitched and played shortstop with and against guys who were generally three years older than him.
“I think I did pretty well, going up against guys who were older,” McKenna said. “It got me prepared for varsity baseball.”
So the three-sport athlete was mentally prepared for the challenge of being a varsity pitcher and infielder.
“I always knew he had a lot of talent,” North Arlington head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono said. “I saw him play last year on JV (junior varsity). With our shortstop (Manny Mora) graduating, I kind of figured that the kid to replace him would be McKenna. His arm was strong enough to handle the throws. He would have been on varsity last year if we didn’t have so many seniors. We also wanted to have him develop as a pitcher.”
So when the 2017 season began last week, McKenna was more than ready and certainly confident.
“He only had a few innings in the preseason, so you really can’t tell what you have,” Marcantuono said. “He was essentially brand new to varsity. He also just had seven at-bats in the scrimmages. But we figured he was one of our better athletes. And the kids all knew who the shortstop had to be. The confidence part, no doubt, comes from within.”
Marcantuono recalls a younger McKenna giving the coach some advice in seventh grade, when Eric McKenna was watching his older brother, Ryan, play for the Vikings.
“He would say, ‘Coach, I would have done this or I wouldn’t have done that,’” Marcantuono said. “You could tell that he knew the game well. He was also one of those kids who could do anything, play any sport.”
It was proven earlier this scholastic year when Eric McKenna was thrown into the fire of the North Arlington soccer team and scored 11 goals. It was also proven when McKenna went out for the NA bowling team without having bowled regularly since age 12 and fired a 205 average, earning All-Bergen County honors.
“I knew that he was going to contribute to this team this season,” Marcantuono said. “I just never dreamed he would be able to do it so quickly.”
McKenna had a phenomenal opening week of high school baseball. He pitched two scoreless innings against Bogota in relief, striking out four. In his first varsity start against Weehawken, McKenna fired a three-hitter, striking out 14 batters.
At the plate, McKenna had two hits, including a home run, and three RBI against Queen of Peace and had an RBI single in the Weehawken’s game for the game’s lone run and the 1-0 Viking victory.
McKenna has also collected four stolen bases in three games.
For his efforts, McKenna has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week, the first such honoree of the spring scholastic sports season.
McKenna was asked how he’s able to keep sharp in the three sports.
“It’s pretty difficult, because I have to practice all three sports all year,” McKenna said. “I’m able to balance my schedule pretty well.”
Even though he’s a soccer player in the fall and a bowler in the winter months, his favorite sport is baseball.
“Baseball is definitely my favorite, because it’s more of a team sport than the others,” McKenna said. “You can’t just rely on one person in baseball.”
McKenna was asked if he experienced the nervous jitters before his first start against a good Weehawken team.
“I was a little nervous, but after the first inning, I settled in and just concentrated on throwing strikes,” McKenna said. “I was able to hit my spots well and I had good command of my breaking ball.”
Which was a feat in itself last Wednesday, considering it was a cold and blustery day.
“I was able to get a good grip on the ball,” McKenna said. “I was definitely pumped up for the game. It definitely gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that I can beat a very good team like Weehawken.”
And gets McKenna prepared for his next start, whenever that may be.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” McKenna said. “I’m more than ready now. Coach (Marcantuono) has given me a few days to rest, but he wants to keep me in the lineup, so I’ll play second or be the DH (designated hitter). I’m pretty confident right now.”
Marcantuono just hopes that McKenna develops into the player than Ryan McKenna was.
“Ryan was more of a powerful hitter,” Marcantuono said. “If Eric gets that big and strong, watch out. He’ll be a force. Both have different baseball abilities. If Eric gets Ryan’s strength and power, he could become one of the really good ones. He’s going to contribute. He’s one player I don’t have to worry about. I think his confidence will help his abilities.”
Ryan McKenna is a student at Seton Hall University these days. He already knows about his little brother’s great week.
“I looked up to him, but I also knew that I wanted to be better than him,” Eric McKenna said. “I think he’s really surprised with what I’ve done. I don’t think he was expecting it either.”
McKenna is no longer a surprise. Now, everyone knows what he’s capable of.
North Arlington sophomore pitcher/shortstop Eric McKenna. Photo by Jim Hague