Blue Tide looks to roll once again on baseball diamond

It was one of the biggest feel-good stories of the 2016 high school baseball season in northern New Jersey. Harrison High School, known forever for its soccer prowess and recently because of its success in boys’ volleyball, had a tremendous baseball season a year ago.

The Blue Tide won 21 games, won a share of the North Jersey Interscholastic League-Liberty Division title (the first divisional baseball title in school history) and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Parsippany.

A 21-7 record during baseball season was a remarkable turn of events for head coach Jairo Mendez and his program.

“Every year is a new year,” Mendez said. “We do have some returnees back from last year. Those guys know what it takes to be successful. Hopefully, there will be some carryover from that. I’m hoping that we can get some good leadership from the returnees and everyone else feeds off it.”

One of the key returnees is junior right-handed pitcher Julio Ortiz, who won seven games last season.

“He emerged as a top pitcher for us,” said Mendez, himself a great pitcher first at Kearny High School and later Montclair State.

Junior Dustin Huseinovic, who missed a good portion of last season with a wrist injury, has returned 100 percent healthy for this season. Huseinovic, a standout football player in the fall, is being converted into a pitcher this season.

“He is going to be one of our main guys,” Mendez said. “He has a live arm.”

Junior Anderson Vasquez is another competitive pitcher. Sophomore Mike Oeckel is a right-handed hurler as well, as is junior Jake Ruiz.

“It’s great to have the pitching depth that we have,” Mendez said. “We just need them now to be more consistent. It’s basically an inexperienced pitching staff. We need the pitchers to build confidence. They have to learn how to become pitchers instead of just throwing.”

If there’s someone who can teach the fine points of pitching, it’s Mendez.

Handling the pitching staff is four-year starting catcher Mike O’Donnell.

“He has the experience and the knowledge of the game,” Mendez said of the talented senior, a three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) standout. “I hope he has patience with the younger, inexperienced pitchers. He has to step them up and help them to keep their focus. It’s been my privilege to have been able to coach him for four years. It’s his last year and he’s going to give it his all.”

O’Donnell is clearly one of the best athletes in the school’s history.

The first baseman is Andrew Valente, who was on the team last year, but in a reserve role. Ray Chico is a sophomore who will get time at second base with junior Raul Acosta. Chico may also see time on the mound in a relief role.

Junior Eddie Mieles is the team’s shortstop. He saw limited action last year.

Vasquez and junior Jason Calderon are sharing time at third base.

Huseinovic will man left field when he’s not pitching. Ortiz takes over in centerfield when he’s not on the mound. Oeckel, Ruiz and junior Alex Vargas are all in the mix for playing time in the outfield.

There is one glaring note to make about the Blue Tide. There are only two seniors on the roster.

“We’re very young,” Mendez said. “Our thing this year is that we’re always trying to be competitive. We’re going through some growing pains right now. They might be inexperienced, but they are listening and learning. They’re retaining the information we’re giving to them. If they continue to learn and apply that to the field, they should be fine.”

Mendez is also working his way back to health after recent surgery.

“I’m getting better each day,” said Mendez, who has not returned to full-time coaching, getting help from assistants Charlie Comprelli and Anthony Ferriero.

The Blue Tide begin the season April 1 at home against NJIC rival Wallington.

“It should be a good season,” Mendez said. “It may take a while for us to get going, but we have a good group.”

Jairo Mendez wouldn’t have it any other way.

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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.”