Bucs bounce back with a vengeance

The Belleville softball team is vastly improved over last year, going from seven wins all of last year to a 9-3 mark already this season. Kneeling, from l., are Jackie Sales, Samantha Samaniego and Sarah Guy. Standing, from l., are Barbara Jacangelo, Karina Ramos, Valentina Garrido and head coach Chris Cantarella.
The Belleville softball team is vastly improved over last year, going from seven wins all of last year to a 9-3 mark already this season. Kneeling, from l., are Jackie Sales, Samantha Samaniego and Sarah Guy. Standing, from l., are Barbara Jacangelo, Karina Ramos, Valentina Garrido and head coach Chris Cantarella.

There was a time – not so long ago – that Belleville High School had one of the most consistently solid softball programs in Essex County, thanks to the efforts of longtime head coach Carl Corino and his eventual successor Chris Cantarella.

Even after Cantarella took over as head coach a decade ago, the Buccaneers flourished year after year.

But three years ago, the bottom fell out of the Belleville softball program, as Cantarella and his Buccaneers struggled to a 2-18 record.

However, Cantarella was encouraged, because that team included several freshmen.

“Those girls got thrown into the fire as freshmen,” Cantarella said. “They were perhaps riding the coattails of the teams we had in the past.”

There was a gradual improvement to seven wins two years ago and a 7-17 mark last year.

“I tried to build off those heartbreaks that the kids suffered for three years,” Cantarella said. “We have a lot of great kids who managed to hang in there.”

As the 2015 high school softball season began, the Buccaneers found themselves in a new division of the Super Essex Conference, the Colonial Division, where they were paired with teams of equal talent.

“I knew that we would be a little more successful in the new league,” Cantarella said. “We would also be able to schedule independent teams that were equal to us. That’s a big plus.”

So far, so good for the Buccaneers, who own a 9-3 record this season, already topping last year’s win total.

“I’m very happy with the way the season is going, but I’m happier for the girls, because they really have come through a lot,” Cantarella said.

The Buccaneers have been utilizing three different pitchers this season, all three of whom are sophomores.

Jasmine LaTorre has emerged as a solid pitcher.

“I was a little hesitant at first to use her, because she didn’t pitch a lot last year,” Cantarella said. “But she has been pitching well for us. She’s throwing strikes and has been keeping her pitches down, so either the batter pops it up or hits it down into the ground. When practices began in March, I didn’t expect Jasmine to be a pitcher, but she’s doing well.”

Kara Sica is another sophomore hurler.

“Kara throws it a little harder than Jasmine,” Cantarella said. “Jasmine has a little more control. Kara was very good for us in the summer. It’s a nice problem to have, knowing you have pitching depth.”

It doesn’t end there, as fellow sophomore Kaila Freid is another quality hurler.

“Kaila has already pitched two games for us in an emergency,” Cantarella said. “She broke her wrist early, but she has come back and pitched well.”

Some teams have a tough time developing one pitcher. Belleville has three. That’s a blessing.

The catcher is senior Jackie Sales, who has turned herself into a very good backstop.

“She’s improved her arm and her footwork behind the plate,” Cantarella said. “She has a strong arm, an accurate arm. She calls a good game. She used to play the outfield, but she’s become a good catcher.”

Sophomore Gianna Benacquista is the first baseman, much like her older sisters Leah and Jessica were. Jessica is playing softball at Bryant University.

The younger Benacquista is battling a leg injury, so she has been working hard with the physical therapists to see if she can get back on the field as soon as possible. Sophomore Victoria Bruno is also recovering from an injury, a dislocated ankle, so she is also slowly getting back into the mix.

Sophomore Luciana Gilfone is the second baseman. Gilfone has been moved to second base this season.

“She’s learning a new position, but she’s doing very well,” Cantarella said. “She has a really strong arm for a second baseman. She’s still learning the game and has to be reminded of what she has to do. But she has promise.”

Junior Kristan Lombardi is the starting shortstop for her third straight year. Lombardi is the sister of former Buccaneers standout pitcher Jenna.

“She’s been a very pleasant surprise at the plate,” Cantarella said.

Senior Sarah Guy is the team’s third baseman. Guy has had to endure her share of injuries during her days at Belleville, first as a pitcher.

“She pitched every game as a freshman and had a bit of a rough go of it,” Cantarella said. “She then had two herniated discs in her back. But I’m so very happy to see her have some success now.”

Guy was a second team All-Essex County selection last year as a third baseman. “She’s our rock,” Cantarella said. “She’s just a solid player. She’s a knowledgeable player. She takes charge out there for us and is such a great kid.”

Guy will attend Montclair State in the fall and hopes to play softball there.

The left fielder is senior Samantha Samaniego, the basketball standout.

“She’s Belleville’s top scholar/athlete,” Cantarella said. “She’s a strong kid and a smart kid. Defensively, she’s phenomenal. She gets to every ball. She’s been our leadoff or our number two hitter for the last four years.”

Junior Keila Garcia is the centerfielder. She played infield last year, but Cantarella saw something in her and converted her to the outfield.

“She’s also a soccer player, so I figured she could run to the ball in the outfield,” Cantarella said of Garcia. “She’s done a nice job out there. I’m very pleased with how she’s playing defensively.”

Junior Breana Nieves is the right fielder. right fielder.

“She’s another first-year outfielder,” Cantarella said. “She played third base last year, but she’s picked up playing the outfield well. She’s been our biggest surprise so far. She’s also filled in at first base in a pinch and never played there before.”

Bruno and LaTorre have seen time as the designated player. Senior Karina Ramos also sees time in the outfield.

“She’s one of the most athletic outfielders,” Cantarella said of Ramos. “I’ve been trying to get everyone in as much as possible, get them some at-bats. I try to play as many kids as I can, like 13 or so a game.”

So the Buccaneers are 9-3 and earned the No. 11 seed in the upcoming Essex County Tournament.

“I’m really happy where we’re at,” Cantarella said. “I didn’t know how good they could become. But from where we were three years ago to where we are now is a great improvement. It’s been pleasant to see them have some success.”

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”