Blue Tide enjoys NJIC Liberty baseball title

It had been a long time since Harrison High School enjoyed a baseball championship of any kind.

Just how long? No one seems to know, but it was well over a decade. That is, before recently, when the Blue Tide laid claim to a share of the New Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Liberty Division championship.

Both Lyndhurst and Harrison had identical 13-3 records in the NJIC Liberty, including a 1-1 record against each other, which means that the title has to be shared.

“Being co-champs is still a great accomplishment for this team,” said Harrison head coach Jairo Mendez, soon after the Blue Tide was eliminated from the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II quarterfinals by eventual champion Parsippany.

Parsippany also knocked off Lyndhurst in the sectional title game last week.

“It’s the first time that Harrison ever won that league,” said Mendez, the former Kearny High and Montclair State ace hurler. “I didn’t think we’d get to 21 wins with this team.”

But the Blue Tide shocked their coach, posting an impressive 21-7 record this spring.

“I think the chemistry of the team was outstanding,” Mendez said. “It was a disciplined team, a focused and determined team. You put that all together and that’s how you get to 21 wins. It was a great success story.”

Mendez knew coming into the season that he had a deep and talented pitching staff and those young men didn’t disappoint their coach.

“They all stepped up big time,” Mendez said. “They pitched like champions for the most part.”

Mendez credited the move of Mike O’Donnell from middle infielder to catcher, handling all the talented arms with ease.

“Mikey took over as the catcher and was very clutch offensively and defensively,” Mendez said. “He made First Team All-NJIC and he hit .430. He deserves a lot of the credit for the pitching.”

Marquis Valentin was a standout performer, both on the mound and at the plate. When he wasn’t pitching, Valentin played a flawless shortstop.

“The kid is a bulldog,” Mendez said of the senior, who posted an 8-3 record with a 1.80 earned run average. “He’s a pitcher. He’s not a thrower. He’s not afraid to throw his pitches and had all the tools to be a team leader. He’s been with us since he was a freshman and just kept getting better. He worked so hard, year in and year out. Here’s proof that if you listen and do the right things, good things will come to you.”
Valentin also batted .442 with two homers and 32 RBI.

“He’s just an outstanding kid,” Mendez said of Valentin, who appears headed to Brookdale Community College to play baseball in the fall. “His hard work paid off.”

Senior Craig Ruff won three games on the mound and provided solid backup to Valentin.

“His development was outstanding,” Mendez said of the right-handed Ruff, who also batted .317 with a homer and 19 RBI. “He limited his walks. He was a good motivator. Kids fed off him.”
Senior Rodney Diaz was a solid second baseman and pitcher who posted a 4-0 record this season.

The big surprise on the mound came from sophomore Julio Ortiz, who batted .366 with three homers and 22 RBI, but posted a 6-1 pitching record with a 1.65 earned run average.

“He has all the pitches, a fastball, a changeup,” Mendez said. “I never knew that he could be that good. He’s going to be our ace in the future. He turned out to be a very good pitcher. I’m excited about his future.”

Among the regular players, Juan Pablo Lopez will probably be missed the most. Lopez was the team’s resident utility man, playing third base, shortstop, outfield and even pitcher during the course of the season. Lopez batted .387 with two homers and 23 RBI. Lopez delivered two clutch triples in the Blue Tide’s win over Caldwell in the opening round of the NJSIAA state playoffs.

“We have eight seniors and they’re all going to be missed,” Mendez said. “They’ve set the tone for years to come. I think we gained some recognition this year within the (Hudson) county and the state. Now that we’re champions, the bulls’ eye will be on us. We have to try to maintain what we did this year.”

Free baseball camp

With that in mind, Mendez will conduct a free baseball camp at the high school. On June 28 through June 30, from 9 a.m. to noon, Mendez and his staff will help youngsters work on their fundamental baseball skills. The free camp’s registration is currently taking place at the Harrison Recreation Center, so any youngster who is interested should sign up for the camp before it takes place.

It’s a unique camp in that is free, so youngsters should take advantage of it.

Mendez and the Blue Tide will be back next year, ready to build on their championship 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.”