Blue Tide’s diamond dandies ready to roll this season

The Harrison High School baseball team won 15 games last year in head coach Jairo Mendez’s second year at the helm and the former Kearny and William Paterson standout hurler believes his team has the potential to be even better this year.

“We have a strong pitching staff coming back,” Mendez said. “So that definitely helps. I’ve been working with these kids for the last three years now. It’s always a pleasure to get to the field and work with them and see them grow. So I should have big expectations this year. I should expect bigger and better things.”

However, Mendez doesn’t want to look any further ahead than he has to.

“I like to look at things more on a day-to-day operation,” Mendez said. “If the kids work hard and they do so every day, they will be fine. I tell them every day that they have to stay focused and disciplined. If they manage to do that, we’ll have a nice ball club.”

Mendez welcomes back senior right-hander Marquis Valentin, who won six games last year as a junior.

“He’s going to be our ace this year,” Mendez said of Valentin. “He’s been very effective so far in our scrimmages. I’m trying to have him focus on his fastball and his change-up. Both are very good pitches for him. He’s been doing great. He has to keep his command and limit his walks.”

When Valentin is on, he’s very tough to beat.

Another senior right-hander is Craig Ruff, who won four games last year.

“He was very inconsistent as a pitcher last year,” Mendez said. “He needs to stay in the zone and throw strikes to help us out.”

Senior Rodney Diaz isn’t the biggest kid around, but the right-hander is crafty and knows how to work his way out of tight situations.

“He keeps the ball down,” Mendez said. “He’s in the strike zone and pitches to contact.”

It’s good to have pitchers who realize where they are pitching. There are no fences at the high school field, so if the pitchers can induce batters to hit the ball in the air, chances are that a fielder will catch it.

“I tell that to my pitchers all the time,” Mendez said. “We have the biggest ballpark around, so I tell the pitchers to let the batters hit the ball and we’ll get it. If he’s in the strike zone, he’s going to be effective.”

Sophomore Julio Ortiz is the fourth member of that talented Blue Tide pitching staff.

“For a sophomore, he has good command,” Mendez said. “We can always use more pitching. He’s doing very well. He’s still learning and learning every day. He’s like a sponge, soaking it all in and retaining everything. He’s learning how he can be more effective and help us. He’s a good guy to have on the team, because he does so many things.”

The catcher is junior do-everything Mike O’Donnell, who swung a torrid bat at the end of last season. O’Donnell, who can also pitch in a pinch, played third base and the outfield a year ago, but he’s being asked to be the Blue Tide’s backstop this year.

“He has played catcher before,” Mendez said. “He’s just an outstanding athlete.”

O’Donnell is also the quarterback on the football team.

“He just exploded at the end of last season,” Mendez said of O’Donnell, who had a five-hit, six-RBI, six runs scored game against Bergen Charter last season. “I just hope it continues this season. If he stays hot like he did at the end of last season, he’s going to have a great year.”

The first baseman is senior Chris Velazquez, who was a key reserve last season.

“He’s worked hard to learn the position,” Mendez said. “He’s a good team player.”

Eddie Mieles is a sophomore newcomer who is winning the battle to become the team’s second baseman.

“He has a good glove and he’s a little nervous about playing varsity,” Mendez said. “But the more time he plays, the better he’ll be.”

The shortstop duties will be a parade of characters like Valentin, Ruff and senior jack-of-all-trades Juan Lopez, who seriously could play anywhere on the field. Diaz will also get time at shortstop.

“It all depends on who’s pitching,” Mendez said.

The same can be said for third base, with Valentin, Ruff (who played third last year) and Lopez all bouncing back and forth.

Senior Andrew Gomez is the left fielder, with standout senior Felix Calderon returning to his starting spot in center field.

“He can go and get it,” Mendez said of Calderon. “His game is his speed. He had three infield singles one scrimmage. He has tremendous speed and we’re working on using it.”

O’Donnell will be the leadoff hitter, with Calderon batting No. 2. That’s a lot of talent at the top of the order.

Junior Julio Ortiz will see time in right field, but look for junior Jacob Ruiz to get some time in the outfield.

“He’s been hitting the ball real well,” Mendez said. “Maybe he’ll be a DH (designated hitter) for us. We have to find a way to get him in the lineup. If you can hit, you can play. We’ll find a spot.”

Others who will see time include senior outfielder Andrew Cartegena, junior second baseman Emmanuel Valerio, junior outfielder Adam Mobus and sophomore first baseman Andrew Valente.

The Blue Tide suffered a huge setback when it was learned that Dustin Huseinovic, another player who was torrid hot at the end of last season, hurt his elbow and will miss significant time this season.

“It’s a loss,” Mendez said. “We hope to get him back. If he comes back, we have Lopez, Calderon and Huseinovic who can all hit the ball. I think we can have a good season. Most of the kids have been around, so they know me and what I expect. Mentally, we have to come in with a positive attitude.”

The Blue Tide begins the season against University Charter of Jersey City April 1, then Harrison takes on Queen of Peace April 3, followed by New Milford and Lyndhurst. The Blue Tide will be tested right away.

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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.”