The last time North Arlington Little League captured a District 5 banner was 1960.
“That’s pretty far back,” said Joe Witt, the manager of the North Arlington Little League Junior All-Star team, filled with standout players ages 13 and 14.
Witt has been the manager of the North Arlington All-Stars over the last couple of years. Witt, a veteran of coaching Little League teams in his hometown of Kearny and in neighboring North Arlington, did a fine job of keeping the team together after they lost in the District 5 title game.
“The nucleus has been together for a long time,” Witt said. “That’s the way it works. We got lucky, too. This group here has a good time together as well. We just put it together and let the kids play. It’s like a family.”
But Witt knows that there is a key to success in postseason play.
“We practice every day,” Witt said. “It’s the only way to get better. We make it fun for them, but they know that there’s going to be a lot of learning baseball. We set the environment that they know what to expect.”
So going into last week’s District 5 All-Star tournament, Witt knew his team had a chance to win the district banner despite the fact that North Arlington had not claimed the title in more than 50 years.
“We knew that we had a chance to win because we finished second last year,” Witt said. “We had a good combination of kids from last year and others.”
The North Arlington All-Stars won 16 straight games in the regular season and then rolled through the District 5 tournament, bringing home the first championship in more than five decades.
The North Arlington All-Stars then continued on in the Section 2 tourney, defeating Bayonne and Fort Lee in consecutive games to advance to one game of the state championship round.
“Everyone has contributed in one way or another,” Witt said. “We have a good group of kids. There’s never any infighting. They all love baseball and they all love playing. Whatever we’ve done with this team, it’s working.”
Leading the way is Joey Witt, the coach’s son. The right-hander allowed just two hits and one run in the District 5 tournament and struck out 22.
“He throws pretty hard,” Witt said of his son. “He also has a good curveball.”
Right-hander Michael Roman, who will be a sophomore at North Arlington High, is more of a control pitcher.
“He throws strikes,” Witt said. “He’s very economical.”
Righty Pete Ziakos is a big kid who throws hard. Enrique Dagger used to attend Queen of Peace, which has now closed. All four of the North Arlington pitchers are 14 years old.
The catcher is Tony Alho, who is also an excellent soccer and basketball player.
“Tony’s our No. 3 hitter,” Witt said of Alho. “He can flat out hit. He’s a big, strong kid.”
First base is handled by A.J. Bradley, who is the team’s clean-up hitter and a 13-year-old player.
“He has good power,” Witt said of the eighth grader Bradley.
Second base is split between Donovan Ortiz and Tyler McGeehan.
“Donovan is a very slick fielder,” Witt said. “Tyler is our all-purpose player. He can play second base, shortstop, the outfield or pitcher. He’s just an athlete.”
Witt and Roman share the shortstop duties when the other is pitching.
The third baseman is Jared Velazquez, a 14-year-old freshman at North Arlington High.
“He’s a first baseman by trade who moved across to play third for us,” Witt said. “He’s done very well.”
The left fielder is Ziakos, who Witt called “one of the best outfielders around.”
The centerfield duties are shared between a pair of 13-year-olds in Ryan Cherichella and Oscar Torres.
“They show the promise of the program,” Witt said.
Right field is shared by Dagger, Andrew Almeida, who will attend St. Peter’s Prep and Jimmy Pezzuta.
Witt is joined by assistant coaches Lou Velazquez and Tony Alho, Sr.
Witt was asked if he ever gets tired coaching youth baseball.
“I talked to my wife and told her that I always want to be a part of coaching,” Witt said. “I can’t sit in the stands and watch. It’s been fun. Coaching has given me a lot of thrills, especially now that Joey is doing so well.”
Joe Witt learned from a master. His father was a respected Little League coach for ages.
“I never had a better coach in my life,” Witt said of his father.
People are beginning to say the same thing about the son as well.