The NJSIAA baseball playoffs began last week and things didn’t exactly look rosy for the Vikings of North Arlington High School.
After all, the Vikings were the 14th seed in the North Jersey Section 2, Group I bracket. They owned a robust 8-15 record entering the playoffs. The two prior games before the state playoffs began, the Vikings were outscored by a grand total of 28-2, losing to Harrison by a final score of 11-1, preceded by a one-sided rout against St. Mary’s of Rutherford, falling 17-1.
For all intents and purposes, this looked like a John Calipari special, namely one-and-done.
But North Arlington head coach Paul Marcantuono didn’t believe that his team’s season was over.
Marcantuono pointed toward a 2-0 victory over Secaucus the week prior to the state tournament as a positive sign.
“That was a good win for us,” Marcantuono said. “(Eric) McKenna was phenomenal that game. It was an exciting win.”
So Marcantuono went to work and pumped his team up for Dunellen, the No. 3 seed in the bracket.
“We knew that we were going to be in the state tournament, despite not having a .500 record,” Marcantuono said. “We knew that we were going to be a low seed and have to play on the road. But it wasn’t an issue for us. After graduating 13 seniors from last year’s team, I knew that this season might be a bit of a struggle.”
But Marcantuono also knew one fact.
“I knew we had two kids who could throw,” Marcantuono said. “We had Eric McKenna and Charles Kearney. I wasn’t too worried with those two kids. We lost a couple of close games early this season, but we were in those games because of those pitchers.”
So when the Vikings got on the bus and headed to Dunellen in Middlesex County, they weren’t thinking like a team that was seven games under .500.
“The kids were fired up,” Marcantuono said. “I knew we could play well. We were the underdogs. We had the mentality that someone had to win the game and why not us? We knew our pitchers were ready. It was a new season. We were playing with house money. We had nothing to lose. I knew we were a dangerous team if we could pitch.”
Sure enough, the Vikings were indeed dangerous, especially with talented sophomore righty McKenna on the hill.
McKenna pitched the game of his young life, surrendering just three hits and one unearned run over 6 1/3 innings, striking out 13 batters. He was completely dominant.
When McKenna reached the newly-imposed pitch count limit, throwing 106 pitches, in came Kearney to act like Mariano Rivera.
Kearney struck out both batters he faced for the save of the Vikings’ 4-1 win over Dunellen and the chance to advance in the state tournament.
The Vikings, the lowest seeded team to win a state tournament game in northern New Jersey, were scheduled to face 11th-seeded Bloomfield Tech in the quarterfinal round after press time Friday afternoon.
Marcantuono started to get a good feeling about the game watching McKenna, a former Observer Athlete of the Week, operate.
“By the third inning, I knew McKenna was on,” Marcantuono said. “I knew that if we got the lead, they were not going to score again.”
Mark Cunningham, who had two RBI on the day, put down a beautiful suicide squeeze bunt that broke the 1-1 tie. Mike Rotondo and McKenna each had two hits and scored a run.
“I told them that even though we were the 14th seed, we had a shot,” Marcantuono said. “We couldn’t over think it. We were counting on the underdog theory and it worked. If we played hard and played clean, it didn’t matter what happened the last two games.”
“Hey, we’re 1-0,” Marcantuono said. “It’s a new season. Our goal before the season was to be able to win a state playoff game and take it from there. We won that game, but now we have to focus on the next challenge.”
McKenna improved his record to 4-4 on the season. He now has 71 strikeouts and just 21 walks on the season. He’s been brilliant, especially for a sophomore.
“It’s been exciting,” Marcantuono said. “The kids are excited.”
As well they should be. Records and seeding mean nothing when it comes to the state playoffs. The Vikings are living proof of that.
The North Arlington High School baseball team might have a 9-15 record this season, but the Vikings are still alive in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs thanks to the pitching of sophomore Eric McKenna (left) and senior Charles Kearney (right). Photos by Jim Hague