There was a time in his young athletic life that Eric McKenna might allow outside distractions get to him while he was performing as an incredible three-sport athlete at North Arlington High School.
If a certain call or play didn’t go his way, McKenna would show his emotions, either with facial displays or perturbed body language.
Maybe it was McKenna’s intense drive and desire to get recognized enough to receive a college scholarship that fueled his actions when he played, particularly when he was pitching for the Vikings’ baseball team.
But that has all now changed. McKenna has matured into a well-oiled machine. Having a scholarship to Caldwell University tucked away firmly in his back pocket could be the reason for his relaxation as an athlete. He doesn’t have to worry about who is watching him and what his future holds. That has all been determined.
“I feel that after last summer, it taught me a lot about maturity,” McKenna said. “I’m definitely having a lot more fun.”
Just how much fun is McKenna having? Well, the senior has become a mentor and on-field coach for the younger members of the Viking squad.
“Things have definitely changed,” McKenna said. “Instead of worrying about me, I have been teaching the younger kids some of the things I’ve learned over the years. I’m doing a better job teaching the team and I’m enjoying that role. Two years ago, I don’t think I ever would have seen myself in this position.”
Imagine that. A calmer, collected McKenna serving as a leader to the rest of the team. Things sure have changed.
“He wants to be the leader to the younger kids,” said veteran North Arlington head coach Paul Marcantuono. “I knew he would be great at that.”
And as for the old emotional McKenna?
“He has more control of his emotions on the mound,” Marcantuono said. “I’d always say that he can’t show negative emotions on the mound. But he has a good relationship with his catcher (sophomore Tony Alho) and they call the game together on their own. They do a good job of it. He’s relaxed. He just comes to play.”
There has never been a hint of doubt of McKenna’s talent. For example, he started last year off with a bang, firing a no-hitter against Bogota, earning Observer Athlete of the Week honors.
Now, a year later, on the heels of a great soccer season and an even better bowling campaign, earning First Team All-State honors, McKenna is at it again.
In the last two starts, McKenna fired a three-hit shutout against Becton Regional, striking out 13 and walking two and backed that up with a two-hit shutout against neighboring rival Harrison, fanning 15 while walking just two.
At the plate, McKenna delivered nine hits in 15 at-bats, with a homer, three doubles and three RBI.
And for his efforts, McKenna has been named once again as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Marcantuono believes that McKenna is a better pitcher than he has ever been before.
“He’s throwing a little harder,” Marcantuono said. “Basically, he’s the centerpiece of the team. We all know his talent on the mound, but it’s everything else that he’s bringing to the team. He wants to teach the younger kids different grips, different things he has learned. He’s putting his fastball where he wants. His curveball is sharp. He’s added a changeup. He just comes to play every day. It’s fun to watch.”
Marcantuono made a shift in the Vikings’ lineup last week, dropping McKenna from the No. 3 slot in the batting order to No. 5 and it has worked to a charm.
“I was struggling a little, so I actually approached Coach and asked him to drop me,” McKenna said. “It worked out pretty well. After the first week, I worked with Joey Witt’s Dad and he helped me a little with my swing.”
McKenna likes the way he has been throwing the ball lately, after a tough start against St. Mary’s of Rutherford to begin the 2019 season.
“I’m hitting my spots better now more,” McKenna said. “I feel like I’m throwing harder. I think I still have the same curveball, which has always been one of my better pitches.”
So now, the game of baseball is a lot more fun for McKenna.
“I like it, for sure,” McKenna said. “There is a lot less stress on me. I just go out there and just worry about the game. I don’t have to worry about who’s watching me.”
Marcantuono is obviously pleased with the transformation of his senior leader.
“I think it’s just a case of maturity,” Marcantuono said. “He’s still fiery. He’s still spirited. But I think he has a level of confidence now that he just gets the ball back and is ready to throw the next pitch. He’s doing what we always expected him to do. He’s stepped it up and picked the younger guys up every game. And every time he takes the mound, I feel very confident that he is going to give us a chance to win. I expected that as well. The guy is going to be pitching his heart out for seven innings.”
And who knows where this season will lead him?
“I’m going to keep working towards it,” McKenna said. “I’m definitely having a lot more fun this year.”
North Arlington senior pitcher 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.”