The three P’s: NA’s Alho provides pop, poise and potential

The 2018 high school baseball season was just in its infant stages, maybe two games old or so, when North Arlington High School’s then-freshman catcher Tony Alho started to worry about his future.

“He said to one of his teammates, ‘I think I’m going down to JV (junior varsity),’” veteran North Arlington head coach Paul Marcantuono said. “He had just grounded out in a game and looked a little down. But then a senior on the team said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right here with us.’ I didn’t have to say anything. I think those words gave Tony a little shot in the arm. It was good for him to hear it from a teammate, not one of the coaches.”

There was never really a question as to whether Alho was going to spend time with the lower levels. Once Alho put on the Viking uniform, he was with the varsity to stay. There was no denying that. Alho has become a complete fixture with the Vikings as their primary backstop, their cleanup hitter and emotional leader.

In fact, Marcantuono can’t sing Alho’s praises enough. Simply put, the kid does a little bit of everything.

“He’s a great kid,” Marcantuono said. “He’s very reliable and very accountable. He’s a humble kid. I can’t say enough about him.”

Marcantuono relies so much on his sophomore backstop.

“What he does for us tends to get overlooked,” Marcantuono said. “His ability to call the game is tremendous. He’s very smart behind the plate. He calls most of the pitches. Most of the time, we’re on the same page. I like to give him the freedom to call what he likes back there. I never have to question him. His confidence in himself is huge. He does an excellent job blocking balls in the dirt, framing pitches, throwing the ball.”

Alho is also a standout goalkeeper for the North Arlington boys’ soccer team, so a lot of what he does centers around blocking balls.

“The mentality of blocking the ball is the same in both sports,” Alho said. “It’s the same way of thinking. I have one thing in mind, which is stopping the ball any way I can. As a goalie, as a catcher, you’re trying to save everything. I also like where I am on the field in both sports. I have a perfect view of everything. I find that to be very interesting.”

Alho is also doing a phenomenal job of hitting, especially of late.

A year ago, Alho batted only .281 as a freshman. It’s a number that he wanted to dramatically improve.

So as a practice before every game, Alho would head into his backyard with his father, highly respected youth baseball coach Tony Sr., and work on his hitting.

“My father would soft toss to me,” Alho said. “So before every game, I’d hit in the backyard with my Dad. We have a little net back there and he tosses to me.”

“Tony calls it ‘doing the laundry,’” Marcantuono said. “They have a laundry basket full of baseballs and Tony hits everything.”

The routine has definitely worked for Alho, who has improved his batting average this season by an astounding 140 points. The season just ended last week (after a loss in the second round of the state tourney to top-seeded Hoboken) with Alho batting .429 for the season with nine doubles, three triples and 18 RBI.

Over the last five games, Alho had two hits and three RBI in the Vikings’ win over Roselle Park in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs, had two hits and an RBI against Lyndhurst, had two hits against Cresskill, had two hits and two RBI against Wallington and had one hit and one RBI against Weehawken.

Alho ended the season with at least one hit in each of the Vikings’ last nine games.

For his efforts, Alho has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Marcantuono especially liked the way Alho closed out his season.

“He was on a tear like we’ve never had,” Marcantuono said. “Half of his hits were extra-base hits. Every ball he hit really hard. He swings hard and hits it hard and he’s not striking out.”

Marcantuono loves the fact that Alho is only 15 years old and has two years of varsity baseball in front of him.

“He’s only going to get better,” Marcantuono said. “His confidence is huge and that’s amazing for such a young player. He doesn’t let anything bother him. He has the confidence that I try to instill in all of my players. It relaxes me a little bit to see him in such control. It’s great, because I know he’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger. It’s fun to watch him play. It’s amazing to watch him do all that he does.”

Alho said that he cannot decide which sport he likes better between soccer and baseball. Alho also plays basketball, but hoops take a backseat to soccer and baseball.

“I love being a goalie as much as I love being a catcher,” Alho said. “It would be hard for me to pick one over the other. Soccer and baseball both play a huge part in my life. I love working with a pitcher like Eric (McKenna, the Vikings’ ace), who helps me become a better catcher. I work on framing pitches with Eric. One time, we spent an entire practice just on framing.”

McKenna is off to play baseball at Caldwell University in the fall, leaving the keys to the Vikings’ bus in Alho’s hands. Alho has to drive it now. He has to lead the entire team.

“At the end of the season, I wanted to finish strong,” Alho said. “I tried to do the best that I could possibly do. I was glad to come up big. I’ve definitely been focused and I’m definitely hitting more as the season progressed.”
And hitting is the aspect of baseball that Alho loves the most.

“It’s my favorite part of the game,” Alho said. “There’s no greater feeling than when you absolutely crush the ball.”
Although he’s only a sophomore, it’s never too early to think about college.

“I’d love to play sports in college,” Alho said. “It would be amazing if I could play both soccer and baseball. We have to see what happens.”

The days of when Alho thought he was destined for JV ball are a distant memory.

“I never thought I would be doing what I am now,” Alho said. “It’s all been amazing.”

And there are two years left of the amazing times.

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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.”