Kearny poised for big baseball campaign

Frank Bifulco has been around long enough as the head baseball coach at his high school alma mater, namely Kearny, that he can now be called a veteran head coach.

As Bifulco enters his fifth season as the head man with the Kardinals, the veteran skipper knows one thing: This should be his best campaign to date.

“They’re trying to make some big things happen this year,” Bifulco said of the Kards, who began preseason workouts recently, blessed with the awesome late winter weather everyone has been enjoying. “The kids are hungry. They’re already gearing up for teams that they lost to last year. I like the makeup of this team. We have a chance to be pretty good.”

And the Kards were pretty good a year ago, posting a 16-9 record, advancing to the semifinals of the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament.

“It helps tremendously that we have a lot of the kids who were on the team last year back,” Bifulco said. “I would have to say that it’s a big help having so many kids back. They played summer ball together and fall ball. They were always in the weight room for weight training. They’re not a big ‘rah-rah’ group, but they’re always there, ready to go to work. They hustle on and off the field. We should be okay with our pitching and defense. If we can hit, we can be dangerous.”

Bifulco said that his team collectively is prepared to be a better team this year than they were last year.

“But as we’ve gotten better, so has everyone else in our league,” Bifulco said. “We have to contend with that. The kids are trying their best to be the best hitters they can be. That’s a big difference.”

Leading the pitching staff is senior left-hander Corey Sawyer. With the scholarship to Seton Hall already firmly Stevie Wonder-ed, you know, “signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours,” the ace of the Kardinals’ staff is geared up for one final go-round.

“He’s our ace, our No. 1,” Bifulco said. “There’s no question about that. There’s no hiding it. We’ve treated Corey as our No. 1. He knows it’s his job. He’s going to go out and 95 percent of the time, he’s going to give us the chance to win. It’s up to us to get him the runs.”

Sawyer pitched three no-hitters as a sophomore, but none last year. However, Sawyer was more effective last year, pitching to a 6-3 record with two saves.

“He works hard,” Bifulco said. “He knows he has a bright future ahead of him. At this level, he’s striving for perfection.”

The Kards also have senior right-hander Connor McClelland back. McClelland was 6-1 last year.

“We give him the ball and expect to win,” Bifulco said. “He has a good fastball and a good curve.”

Putting Sawyer and McClelland in the same rotation conjures thoughts of the last time the Kards had two solid aces, a powerful 1-2 pitching punch. It was 2003 and the Kards had former Observer Athlete of the Year Hugh MacDonald and current Harrison head coach Jairo Mendez as its two standout pitchers. That season, the Kards ended the season at the overall Group IV state championships in Toms River.

“Any time you have a solid 1-2 combo, it brings back those great memories,” said Bifulco, who was the second baseman on that team. “If the stars align properly, it should be exciting with the two kids we have. I remind them every day of the legacy of the 2016 Kearny baseball team.”

The Kards’ pitching staff doesn’t end with just Sawyer and McClelland. The Kards also have junior righty Ryan Tully back. Tully has the ability to be an ace on any other staff in the area, but on this staff, he happens to be No. 3. Sophomore righty Justin Sanchez is also a capable hurler.

The catching situation is a little up in the air, with senior Cody Evanchick, sophomore Thomas McAndrew and fabulous freshman Travis Witt battling for playing time. McAndrew is making strides to be the everyday backstop, but watch Witt.

“Travis is just raw,” Bifulco said. “I don’t know if he’s varsity ready just yet.”

The first base duties are handled by senior Joe Esteves, who batted .405 with 20 RBI last year. Esteves should be one of the better first sackers in the area.

The second base responsibilities are being shared by senior Jordan Miranda and sophomore Sanchez, who flashes his leather at several different positions.

Shortstop is held down by senior Joseph Baez, a three-year varsity starter who batted .385 last year.

“Everything revolves around him,” Bifulco said. “He leads by example. He comes every day and does his job. He’s been around since he was a freshman. He knows what to do.”

Sanchez will see time at third, as will Tully and junior Mike Goresh, who has the potential to be a very good hitter.

Samuel Sanchez, the team’s resident utility guy, and senior John O’Neill are sharing left field duties. O’Neill is a three-year varsity starter.

O’Neill is in centerfield when Sawyer’s on the mound. When Sawyer is not pitching, he’s in center. But O’Neill is a key cog to this team.

“Corey is a very good defensive outfielder,” Bifulco said of Sawyer. “He’ll bat either ninth or possibly leadoff.”
McClelland plays right field when not pitching. McClelland improved tremendously as a hitter last year, hitting .367.

Senior Benny Cowan is the regular designated hitter, but Goresh could get in the lineup there.

The Kardinals open the season April 1 against Wallington and April 2 against Old Bridge. Then there’s the showdown April 4 against Memorial and possibly a showdown against Jason Willis, a transfer into Memorial from St. Joseph’s of Metuchen. With Willis, Memorial looms as one of the best teams in the state and definitely the team to beat in Hudson County.

Needless to say, the Kards will be tested right away.

“If we want to be the best, then we have to beat the best,” Bifulco said.

Looks like the Kards do indeed mean business this season.

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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.”