Kearny Kids’ Kamp draws crowd of baseball-loving youngsters

Photo by Jim Hague The campers and counselors get together for a group picture at the fourth annual Kearny Kids’ Kamp, run and organized by Kearny High School head coach Frank Bifulco (second row, far right).
Photo by Jim Hague
The campers and counselors get together for a group picture at the fourth annual Kearny Kids’ Kamp, run and organized by Kearny High School head coach Frank Bifulco (second row, far right).

Although he’s far from actually grabbing a baseball and heading to the pitcher’s mound to throw in a Little League game, Michael Jarquin now feels like he’s more than ready.

Little Michael, age 7, was excited after participating in the fourth annual Kearny Kids’ Kamp recently, a week-long baseball learning festival held at Franklin School Field.

“I learned how to grip the baseball,” Jarquin said. “I like pitching. I think I’ll try pitching.”

Michael Jarquin also likes the Mets and his favorite player is David Wright, so he needs a little joy in his life, considering Wright has not played since April and with spinal stenosis, Wright may never play again.

“Being here made me feel really good,” Jarquin said, forgetting about Wright, the Mets and their woes.

For one full week, it was all about baseball at Franklin School Field. Well, maybe it was about other fun things as well.

For example, when 6-yearold Bella Ricca, one of a handful of girls who participated in the camp, was asked what she liked the best about the week, she didn’t hesitate.

“I liked sliding on the tarp,” little Bella said, talking about the day when the counselors slicked up the protecting covering on Franklin Field, turning the area into a gigantic slip-and-slide. “That was a lot of fun.”

But other campers took the week of baseball learning more seriously.

“I learned about speed and agility,” said 8-year-old Colin Capobianco. “That’s what I liked the most. I want to get quicker and want to be able to play more than one position. I definitely love playing baseball and I like learning about it.”

Capobianco’s words were like music to the ears of Frank Bifulco, the Kearny High School head baseball coach who coordinated the Kids’ Kamp for the fourth time.

“These kids are learning the game at a higher level,” Bifulco said. “The instruction that they receive is great, but we want to make it fun for the kids as well. We’re teaching as they learn more, but they’re definitely having fun. We have to make it fun.”

And it’s also fun for the collective wallets of the parents.

“Some baseball camps charge as much as $500 per student,” Bifulco said. “We’re not near that number. It’s all about the kids. We have a group of quality instructors here.”

For example, Jim Sickinger, who was Bifulco’s coach when Bifulco was a player at Kearny High, came back to work with the kids. Sickinger was a highly successful head coach at Kearny, leading the Kardinals to the overall NJSIAA Group IV state championship game in 2002.

Jairo Mendez, who was a teammate of Bifulco on that Kearny state sectional championship team and is the current head coach at Harrison, was also a counselor for this camp.

Photo by Jim Hague Two of the best campers at the Kearny Kids’ Kamp were the astute Jablonski brothers, 10-year-old Eli (l.) and 12-year-old Nate.
Photo by Jim Hague
Two of the best campers at the Kearny Kids’ Kamp were the astute Jablonski brothers, 10-year-old Eli (l.) and 12-year-old Nate.

Not to mention the resident guru of all baseball in the town, Doug Gogal, who currently serves as Bifulco’s volunteer assistant coach. No one in Kearny knows more baseball than Gogal. He has no peers when it comes to teaching the game the right way.

“We work on all basic fundamentals,” Bifulco said. “We spent 20-to-30 minutes at each station, working on hitting, pitching, infield defense, outfield defense, base running and speed and agility. The backbone of this camp is the coaches. Dave Smith is tireless in what he does with the kids here. It’s tremendous.”

More than 60 youngsters participated in this year’s camp.

“We’ve had some kids who have been here all four years,” Bifulco said. “You can see the progression in the kids. Some of them are now ready for high school.”

That means come next spring, they will be introduced to Bifulco, Gogal and Smith as coaches and not summer camp counselors. It will be just a tad different. No slip-and-slides come next March.

“We really tried to replicate what we do in practice,” Bifulco said. “As the week goes on, we want them all to get an idea of what to expect. As the week goes on, we have some kids who didn’t know anything about baseball, but leave here with some grasp of the game. That was the goal.”

For Bifulco, it’s a little different than what he has to handle during the course of a season.

“I think it’s great,” Bifulco said. “I work with older kids with the high school team. Here, I’m working with younger kids who are all having a blast. It’s a great thing for me, because it gives me a better perspective. I’m teaching kids now that I hope are playing for us later on.”

Connor MacConchie is a 12-year-old budding baseball star. He played for the Shop Rite team that recently won the Kearny Little League World Series title.

“I learned so much stuff about pitching,” said Mac- Conchie, who was tutored in pitching by Mendez, who was a standout hurler in his days at Kearny High and later on Montclair State. “I don’t really pitch, but I can always tune up my skills instead of doing nothing. I feel I can help my team that way. I love playing baseball, so I’m willing to do anything, as long as I can.”

Michael Ricca is an 8-yearold shortstop and second baseman.

“This was a lot of fun,” Ricca said. “I wish we could just stay here all day and play more baseball.”

Trayton Witt is a 10-yearold aspiring baseball player who comes from a long family lineage of baseball standouts. Witt plays second base, shortstop and third base for his Little League team. This was the third year that Witt was a camper at the Kearny Kids’ Kamp.

“I just keep coming back,” Witt said. “I had to learn a lot about base running. We don’t do much of that in Little League. I love playing baseball and I want to keep coming. I want to keep playing. I hope I can play on the high school level one day and be like my brother, T.J. (a former catcher on the Kearny High squad). I definitely love coming here.”

In the Jablonski family, there are two aspiring baseball stars in 12-year-old Nate and 10-year-old Eli. They’re both knowledgeable baseball guys and believe it or not, they’re both Boston Red Sox fans, with devotion to All- Star second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Eli Jablonski is a shortstop, centerfielder and catcher.

“I like playing different positions,” Eli Jablonski said. “It gives me a better chance to play.”

Eli said that he also learned a lot about pitching.

“I might become a pitcher one day, so you never know,” Eli Jablonski said. “I learned that there are many ways you can hold a baseball. This was a lot of fun. I can’t wait to keep playing baseball. I’d have to say it’s my favorite sport.”

His older brother, who plays shortstop and second base, has to agree.

“This helped me a lot and makes me want to play more right now,” Nate Jablonski said. “I hope to play baseball at St. Peter’s Prep one day.”

Nate obviously has his future already mapped out. “The skills I learned here at this camp will help me,” Nate Jablonski said. “I have already taken what I’ve learned to practices and games. I wanted to be able to play everywhere on the field. It gives me a better chance to play.”

It’s safe to say that the Kearny Kids’ Kamp produced some intelligent youngsters as well as good ballplayers.

The Kamp was run in conjunction with the Kearny Board of Education and the Kearny High School Athletic Department. Local chiropractor Jim Sanfilippo also chipped in by defraying the cost of the camp T-shirts.

“All in all, it was a great camp,” Bifulco said. “We had more than 60 kids and they’re all Kearny kids. They love baseball and want to be a part of the game. We want to make it fun for the kids, but we want them to learn the right way as well.” Judging by the way the campers were all intent and all having fun, it’s safe to say that it was mission accomplished at Franklin Field.

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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.”