Jairo Mendez’s life in baseball began when he was five years old.
“I remember my team,” said Mendez, the former Kearny High School great athlete who is now the head baseball coach at Harrison High. “I remember playing for Johnson Communications. I still have my uniform from Tee ball.”
Now 34 years old, Mendez remembers those who helped him along the way.
“I owe a big thank you to the coaches who taught me about sports and about life,” Mendez said. “If not for them, then I would have never existed.”
One of those coaches was Kearny’s resident baseball guru Doug Gogal, who has spent the last 50 years of his life coaching baseball in Kearny, either on the Little League level for years and now currently as Dave Smart’s assistant with the varsity.
Ariana Ruela is another former Kearny High standout athlete, an All-State soccer player who now is the head women’s soccer coach at nearby Rutgers-Newark.
“I loved being a part of Kearny High School soccer,” Ruela said. “I used to eat, bathe and sleep soccer. Some of my fondest memories are of being a part of Kearny High School soccer.”
Mendez, Gogal and Ruela are just three of 17 different individuals who gained induction into the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame Friday night at the Fiesta in Wood-Ridge.
Also gaining induction were Izzy Santos and Eric Valdez for baseball; Emma Bartholomew for girls’ basketball; Dave Herford and John Mills for football; Glenn Costa, Jr. and Richard Moroses for boys’ soccer; Elaina Coyle and Rosemary Garganta for girls’ soccer; Kim Griffin for swimming; Mandy LaValle for girls’ track and field; Angel LaPorte for wrestling; Cindy Dupree for Female All-Around Athlete and Joe Rubbone as a coach.
Mendez, who also played soccer and basketball during his athletic career at Kearny, carved his niche as a great baseball player. As a pitcher, Mendez helped the Kearny Kardinals win the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV title in 2003 and a berth in the overall state championship game. He then ended up having a sensational career at Montclair State, where he ended up winning 19 games over his career and pitching to a 4.18 earned run average.
“It’s a great honor,” Mendez said. “I’m humbled by it. I really wasn’t expecting it. It was an outstanding night and I’m glad I could share it with my family and friends.”
Mendez made sure to thank his mother, Alba, his father Moises and his uncle Lou who all helped to provide positive memories for Mendez as he was growing up.
“I mean, I would always go to the park with my father and uncle and learn about baseball,” Mendez said. “My father was the workhorse in the family, but my uncle to the initiative to take me to the park and learn to play the right way. We would go to the park and play all day long at all times of the day.”
Mendez realizes that the days of three-sport athletes like him are waning.
“You don’t see many three-sport athletes anymore,” Mendez said. “I think being diverse like that really helped me. I was able to use certain skills in sports that I learned from playing another sport. I always believed that if you practice hard, like you’re playing in a game, then you can succeed. I think that’s what separated me from the rest.”
Mendez said that it was rewarding to share the night with some of his former teammates and fellow Hall of Fame inductees.
“We all played sports together back then,” Mendez said. “We were true friends together both on and off the field. We all clicked so well. I think we all recognized what it took to be successful.”
Gogal was glad that there were so many other baseball players in attendance, like players Mendez and Valdez, who gained induction.
“It was a great night for everyone,” Gogal said. “My family was there. It was a good night for baseball in general. When I heard I was getting in, I didn’t expect anything like this.”
Gogal, who gained induction as a contributor, also didn’t expect the standing ovation he got from the people in attendance.
“The amazing thing was the standing ovation,” Gogal said. “I was so shocked and humbled by that. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily my wife was recording it, so I can see it, because it was an out of body experience for me. All the people were standing, not just for me, but for everyone. I was there to share it with guys I coached with like my boss Jim (Sickinger), Frankie (Bifulco) and Dave (Smart, the current Kearny High baseball coach).”
A few days after the induction, Gogal attended the Opening Day ceremonies at the Kearny Little League facility, going back to the place where Gogal carved his teeth as a coach and remained for over 30 years.
“It was nice to go back and hear from people, saying that I made a positive impression on them,” Gogal said.
Ruela was one of the youngest inductees at age 28, but she’s already made her mark as a collegiate coach.
“I was shocked when I heard I was getting in,” Ruela said. “I didn’t expect it at all. I had some good years in Kearny and had some great teammates. It was nice to be included. I just want to continue to grow upward. It was very rewarding. Being in the room with all these greats really hit home and made me realize I’m doing the right thing coaching and being so heavily involved in the game. I have so many games that are still vivid in my mind. I do revisit those games every so often. We had an impressive four-year run. All I wanted to do was play soccer. There was a lot of work and dedication involved.”
Much like there was with the other inductees on a great night for all.
Kearny High School standout Ariana Ruela, currently the head women’s soccer coach at Rutgers-Newark, stands with her plaque after gaining induction into the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame last Friday night. Photo courtesy of Ariana Ruela
It was a reunion of sorts of great baseball minds at the Kearny High School Athletic Hall of Fame induction dinner. From left are assistant coach Jeff Caputo, current head coach Dave Smart, former head coach Frank Bifulco, inductee Jairo Mendez, former head coach Jim Sickinger, inductee and current assistant coach Doug Gogal, former assistant coach Jason Scavalla and inductee Eric Valdez. Photo courtesy of Jairo Mendez
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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.”