NA’s McKenna fires no-hitter against Bogota, has four-hit game vs. Weehawken

At the end of the 2017 high school baseball season, North Arlington shocked a lot of people by being a sub-.500 team that not only qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs with an 8-15 record, but as a No. 14 seed, the Vikings won twice in the playoffs, knocking off Dunellen and Bloomfield Tech before finally falling to eventual sectional champion Glen Ridge in the sectional semifinals.

Part of the reason for the Vikings’ late-season success was the play of then-sophomore Eric McKenna, who pitched a gem against Dunellen, striking out 13 in the victory.

So when the 2018 season began in earnest last week, McKenna was ready to try to duplicate what he did at the end of last year.

“I definitely wanted to match that,” McKenna said. “What happened last year gave me and the rest of the team a lot of confidence, but I really didn’t know what to expect.”

McKenna felt a little apprehension about the start of the new season because the Vikings didn’t get many chances to get outside due to the lousy winter weather the area was experiencing in the early spring. There’s only so much a baseball player can do when there’s snow constantly falling and accumulating.

“I felt like I was throwing the ball pretty good, but that was in the gym, so it was hard to tell,” McKenna said.

So when the season began last Wednesday, after all the stops and starts and postponements due to the wicked weather, McKenna was on the mound for the Vikings, facing Bogota.

Needless to say, the conditions were not ideal for baseball.

“I couldn’t feel my pitches because it was so cold,” McKenna said. “I just didn’t feel it.”

But North Arlington head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono had faith in his ace junior right-hander.

“I feel like he’s one of the best pitchers in our league (the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Meadowlands Division) hands down,” Marcantuono said. “He has All-(Bergen) County stuff. I think he can be one of the top pitchers in northern New Jersey and in all of Group I.”

However, before the season started, Marcantuono noticed a little glitch in McKenna’s delivery.

“There were some mechanical things we had to work on,” Marcantuono said. “He had to keep his eye on the target. For some reason, right as he was getting ready to throw, he would look over at third base and take his eye off the target.”

McKenna has no idea how that habit started.

“I didn’t realize I was doing it,” McKenna said. “I never looked at the catcher. I always looked away. I don’t know why. I didn’t know until the coaches told me. My teammates are helping me to keep looking at the target. It’s definitely helped with my command.”

Marcantuono said that McKenna also had to position his body better when he was on the mound.

“He needed to stay back more instead of leaning forward,” Marcantuono said. “I think that helps his velocity. Eric is a creature of habit. We had to explain a few things to him that would make him better. But once he starts to do it, he gets it. He’s had success the other way growing up. We just wanted to make him better.”
So with the alterations in his pitching motion, McKenna took the mound against Bogota, ready to begin the most important season of his talented high school career.

You see, McKenna is one of the most diverse and most talented athletes in northern New Jersey. As a student/athlete at a small Group I school, McKenna was asked to participate in more than varsity sport. Most athletes go the conventional route of playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.

But McKenna is a standout soccer player in the fall, one of the best two-way performers in the NJIC. Last season, McKenna led the Vikings with 14 goals and added four assists.

In the winter, McKenna is a sensational two-handed bowler, helping to lead the Vikings to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1A, Group I championship.

And come spring _ if the spring ever really comes _ McKenna plays baseball.

“I definitely think it’s different than most,” McKenna said. “I played basketball as a freshman, but then switched to bowling and we’ve done well. I wouldn’t say it’s tough. It keeps me active and busy.”

McKenna manages to juggle the three sports, even when the seasons sometimes overlap.

“I went to team camp with soccer and still managed to do my things with bowling and baseball,” McKenna said. “I just got used to doing all of it.”
“He’s a confident young man,” Marcantuono said. “He’s also super competitive. He competes with himself. I think bowling helps him with that, because he’s always chasing his high score. He wants to be better all the time. I think one sport relates to the other. He’s an All-League soccer player, an All-County bowler and I think that all carries over to baseball.”

After making the changes in McKenna’s motion, Marcantuono noticed the difference.

“He just needed to focus on picking up the target,” Marcantuono said. “He’s staying back more. I think he’s throwing harder. His breaking stuff is better. He’s staying on top of the ball. I think his arm angle changes a little bit from the windup to the stretch (position) and I think that has been effective.  He throws a hard slider and a good change-up.”

In the Vikings’ first game, McKenna went out and merely threw a no-hitter, striking out seven and walking none in a 10-0 win that was shortened to five innings due to the 10-run rule.

Regardless of the innings, it’s still a no-hitter, the first of McKenna’s varsity career.

“It didn’t feel like it because the game was shortened and it didn’t feel like a no-hitter,” McKenna said. “But it’s still a great accomplishment. I’m proud of it. I definitely didn’t expect that in my first game.”

In the Vikings’ third game of the season against Weehawken, a 12-2 North Arlington victory, McKenna had four hits, including a triple, drove in three runs and scored twice. He also made a brilliant play in the field from his shortstop position.

“The ball rolled to the wall (in Weehawken),” Marcantuono said. “Eric got the relay from short left field and threw a cannon shot to home to get the runner at the plate. It must have been about 250 feet on a line, a perfect throw. It was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen anyone make in my 12 years of coaching.”

For the week, McKenna had six hits and four RBI.

Needless to say, for his efforts, McKenna has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. McKenna is the first honoree of the spring scholastic sports season.

Marcantuono was asked if McKenna was a better hitter or a better pitcher.
“I think he’s very good at both,” Marcantuono said. “He makes plays in the infield that are just incredible and makes throws basically because of his arm strength. I don’t want to sell him short as a shortstop, because he’s as good as anyone there. But when he’s on the mound, we feel like we can compete with anyone.”

McKenna is pleased with his incredible start, especially at the plate, batting .545 after the first week of play (the Vikings are 2-1).

“I had a pretty rough year last year hitting, so I’m glad I got off to a good start,” McKenna said. “I think this is only going to make me better in the future. It’s a big step for me.”

Especially since McKenna is always his own toughest critic.

“I do tend to be hard on myself,” McKenna said. “I just have a strong passion for baseball and always want to do well. I don’t want to focus on hitting too much, because it might take away from my pitching.”

“I think he has fiery competitiveness,” Marcantuono said. “It’s super competitiveness. He’s a perfectionist and is hard on himself. But I think his potential is through the roof. He’s only going to be better.”

Although he’s only a junior, Marcantuono believes that the time is right for McKenna to start thinking about playing college baseball. Although he’s excellent in soccer and bowling, the future is in baseball _ and McKenna wants it to be that way.

“We believe he can play at the next level,” Marcantunono said. “He’s only 16 (years old). We think he’s hopefully going to grow a couple more inches. He loves baseball and loves competing in baseball. I think the team is very confident behind him when he’s on the mound. There’s a little more pep in their step. We can go after teams with him on the mound. He gives me a lot more confidence in our team.”

So what does McKenna do now for an encore? A no-hitter in his first start and four hits in the third game?

“I’m surely not expecting the same results,” McKenna said. “But it’s a good basis for the rest of the year. I think last year I was able to make a name for myself. Now I want to get a little more exposure.”

A no-hitter in his first start _ and Athlete of the Week from his local newspaper _ are not bad ways to get noticed.
“Hopefully, those things will help,” McKenna said.

Of course, they will.


North Arlington junior pitcher/shortstop Eric McKenna. Photo by Jim Hague

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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.”