By Jim Hague
Disregard the fact that the Kearny American Legion Post 99 baseball team has a 1-5 record in the early going of the summer baseball league season. Throw out the fact that Kearny is clearly the youngest squad in the Bergen County American Legion League, owning a roster with no high school graduates.
None of that matters to head coach Frank Bifulco, who is also the head coach at Kearny High.
Bifulco, who has been involved with the American Legion program since 2006, believes that summer is the best time for baseball development.
“It’s important to keep the kids together and playing in the summer,” Bifulco said. “We want to make things conducive to playing baseball in the summer. The schedule we have challenges them to play baseball and it’s important to give them the opportunity to just let them play.”
Bifulco also extends the program to allow some grade school youngsters to get involved.
“We have about 10 eighthgraders who come to practices with us,” Bifulco said. “It gives them a chance to get a taste. There is talent in Kearny that needs to be developed, so this gives them a little step ahead.”
So with the coaching staff comprised of local baseball guru Doug Gogal, assistant coach Dave Smart and former American Legion products Ryan Williams and Jeff Caputo, who are either just out of college or still playing college baseball, the youngsters in Kearny are getting a chance to develop.
And that’s the most important aspect of the Kearny American Legion team.
“We have a great atmosphere,” Bifulco said. “There are times where we have to be serious, but the kids have fun. They’re playing pepper in the dugout during rain delays or trying to put sunflower seeds in each other’s hats. They want to be with their buddies and I understand that. And we all want to win. There’s a lot of personal pride involved. But we want to be able to enjoy ourselves. It’s all part of the process.”
Bifulco knows that if he’s able to make baseball enjoyable during the summer development months that the kids will want to play baseball more and more – and that will translate into more wins in the spring when the varsity plays.
“We’re trying to create the right mentality,” Bifulco said. “And the kids are buying into it. Winning and losing isn’t the most important part of this team. We have the youngest team in the league and we’re trying to keep up with the rest. We’ve been getting better so far. We’re making strides. We’re working on mechanics every day. I can’t say I’m unhappy, because the development is more important.”
The Kearny Legion team features underclass members of the Kearny High School program. The pitchers are rising seniors Eric Greenlee, a lefty, and Kyle MacConchie, a righty.
“More than likely, they’ll be our top two pitchers next year on the varsity,” Bifulco said.
Josue Rodriguez, a sophomore next year, and Brian Rowe, who’ll be a junior, round out the pitching staff. Rowe was Kearny’s starting second baseman this spring.
The catching duties have been shared by T.J. Witt and Ryan Michaels, who was the starter behind the plate for the Kearny varsity last spring.
Michaels and Steve Dyl have been at first base, with Zach Mustafa, an incoming freshman, getting time there.
Rodriguez, a rising star, is the team’s shortstop.
“He’s going to be fine,” Bifulco said. “He’s really working hard and getting better. He’s just a natural baseball player, but he’s still young.”
Another key contributor to the team is Michael Pettigrew, who is an infi elder/pitcher, but Pettigrew is a Kearny resident who attends Queen of Peace.
“He’s been doing a nice job for us,” Bifulco said. “He’s a good infielder.”
The third baseman has been MacConchie when he’s not pitching. Anthony Oliviera is the left fielder.
“He’s our hardest working kid,” Bifulco said of Oliviera.
Brandon Vilar is the centerfi elder and another player with promise.
“He knows the game and loves the game,” Bifulco said. “He’s well rounded and he’s only going to get better.”
Greenlee is in right, where he played for Kearny High in the spring. Greenlee is also the quarterback on the Kearny High football team.
So Bifulco will try not to pay too much attention to the scorecard this summer.
“To be honest, the fact that they’re playing together means the most to me,” Bifulco said. “They’re starting to do well and they’re developing more. That’s what we’re focused on and what we’re concerned with. It’s not so much winning, but just how we’re playing.” Bifulco will try to continue that during his Kearny Kards Kamp that will take place at Franklin School Field, July 9-13 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For more information, call (201) 726-9410.
For now, the Legion team will command his attention – and hope the development continues.