Jairo Mendez knows the routine all too well. The Harrison High School head baseball coach realizes that his players just can’t remain members of the Blue Tide forever, that graduations occur every June and seniors move on to college.
It doesn’t mean that Mendez has to like that practice, especially this year, when his Blue Tide squad has lost several key performers, including the 2017-2018 Observer Male Athlete of the Year Dustin Huseinovic.
“Losing seniors, it happens every year,” Mendez said. “You just have to hope that the guys who come in can fill the shoes of the seniors who left. Every year becomes an interesting year. If you have a young and inexperienced team, it takes a lot of patience. We are starting fresh with players at key positions. These guys need repetition after repetition. They have to do the work to get ready for the new season.”
Mendez said that preparation for the 2019 season has become a thinking man’s game.
“We’re literally playing chess with our players,” Mendez said. “We’re moving players all over the place to see where they belong. Every practice, we have players playing four, five different positions. They have to know that learning all the positions elevates their values. If you learn to play four, five positions, then you’re more valuable and there are chances to go anywhere.”
So Mendez has encouraged his pitchers to develop different pitches and has worked with his position players to test the waters with a handful of positions. It has been the recipe for success thus far.
Leading the way for the Blue Tide is veteran pitcher/outfielder Mike Oeckel. The talented right-hander won four games on the mound last season, doing what he does best, throwing strikes and inducing ground balls.
“I expect big things out of him,” Mendez said of Oeckel, who is a brilliant outfielder when he’s not on the bump. “I expect him to be more of a role model and senior leader this year, He has to stay consistent. If he does everything we ask of him, he should have a good season.”
Senior Ray Chico also returns. Chico, who just recently signed a letter of intent to attend Caldwell University to play lightweight (sprint) football for players 175 pounds and lighter, is a standout baseball player as well. Chico is also a right-handed pitcher and a quality infielder when he’s not pitching.
“He’s very effective,” Mendez said of Chico. “He throws strikes. He’s not overpowering, but he gets people out. He has a key role with our staff. He changes speeds and has a great changeup. He does well out there.”
When Chico is not pitching, he will be the Blue Tide shortstop.
“We need him to be on his ‘A’ game every day,” Mendez sad. “In order for us to stay in games, we need Ray to be right there. I feel like he’s more than capable of doing that. He was a leader for our team last year as a junior.”
Another standout pitcher is sophomore Rian Garcia, a player with immense potential.
“He’s a young, good energetic athlete,” Mendez said of Garcia. “He’s talented, but he’s also very eager to learn. He’s getting it little by little. He’s still so raw that it’s scary. We are working on slowing him down. We need him to get to use the lower half of his body more. I think as we continue on, he can become a solid pitcher.”
When he’s not pitching, Garcia will be the regular second baseman.
“He throws strikes,” Mendez said of Garcia. “We need him to conserve his pitch count to stay in games. He’s one of the guys we need to have in the rotation.”
Junior Anthony Zamora, sophomore Sergio Flores and freshmen Jake Moran are three other hurlers that Mendez can rely upon.
“Sergio has a nice live arm,” Mendez said. “Jake is very promising for a freshman. We’re working on his mechanics. With the way he throws, he reminds me of Hughie.”
Mendez is referring to his beloved teammate at Kearny High School, namely Hugh MacDonald, who combined with Mendez to bring home the 2003 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship, the last state sectional Kearny has won in baseball.
Sophomore Anthony Masolino is the starting catcher. Masolino is also a work in progress.
“He’s also eager to learn and he’s doing a good job learning,” Mendez said. “He loves the game and loves learning new stuff.”
The first baseman is sophomore Yordy Nunez and junior Matt Rodriguez. The two are sharing time at first as Mendez waits for one to take over the spot for good.
The second base duties belong to Garcia and when he’s on the mound, then Nunez is ready to step in. Chico is at short with junior Jayden Fiori at third. Fiori earned All-NJIC honors last year as a sophomore.
“Jayden can hit the ball,” Mendez said. “He’s a strong kid. He’s our leading returning hitter and will be our No. 3 hitter this season.”
Oeckel and Moran are sharing the load in left field, with senior David Cabadelo in centerfield and Moran and senior Paul Mobus sharing things in right field.
Mendez likes what Mobus brings to the table.
“He’s a good athlete with good speed and handles the bat well,” Mendez said.
The Blue Tide was scheduled to open the 2019 season with Becton Regional, then facing off with league rivals Butler and New Milford. The Blue Tide will also square off with local rival Belleville during the first week of the season as well.
“We just need to play,” Mendez said. “We have a young team. The kids are eager to learn. They’ve been given the opportunity to improve as ballplayers. Anything is possible.”
Through it all, Mendez has received excellent news. He has been selected to receive induction in the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame next Friday night. It’s an honor that was a long time coming, but he is certainly deserving of the honor. And we’ll have more on the Kearny Athletic Hall of Fame after the induction dinner April 12.
The Harrison High School baseball team will look to be competitive this season, thanks to some talented seniors like, from left, Paul Mobus, Mike Oeckel, head coach Jairo Mendez, Ray Chico and David Cabadelo. Photo by Jim Hague
Senior right-hander Mike Oeckel will play a major role in the Harrison High School pitching rotation this spring. 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.”