It’s a rarity in today’s day and age of high school sports to see one athlete master their craft in multiple sports.
Most athletes generally concentrate on one sport and try to achieve greatness in that sport.
But there are the instances where an athlete, usually at a smaller school, will participate in the “big three” of high school athletics, namely football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.
However, to find someone with the qualifications of Eric McKenna of North Arlington High School is beyond rare. In fact, it’s next to impossible to find, unless, of course, one is referring to McKenna himself.
McKenna is beyond the rare breed of high school athlete. In fact, it’s safe to say that he’s one of a kind.
McKenna participated in three sports at North Arlington – soccer in the fall, bowling in the winter and baseball in the spring.
And he didn’t merely participate and earn varsity letters in that unique trifecta. McKenna dominated in all three.
THE OBSERVER MALE ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
2002-2003-Hugh MacDonald, Kearny
2003-2004-Steve Armstrong, Nutley
2004-2005-Brian Kapp, Lyndhurst
2005-2006-Andrew Amadeo, Kearny
2006-2007-Lou Ritacco, Nutley
2007-2008-Michael Gross, North Arlington
2008-2009-Jose Camano, Harrison
2009-2010-Peter Santos, North Arlington
2010-2011-Patrick Rono, Lyndhurst
2011-2012-Tyler Krychkowski, North Arlington
2012-2013-A.J. Nocciolo, North Arlington
2013-2014-Danny Cordeiro, North Arlington
2014-2015 P.J. Gencarelli, Belleville
2015-2016 Petey Guerriero, Lyndhurst
2016-2017 Mike O’Donnell, Harrison
2017-2018 Dustin Huseinovic, Harrison
2018-2019 Eric McKenna, North Arlington
McKenna was a sensational soccer player for the Vikings, earning All-North Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Conference honors all four years. He tallied 50 goals during his career, including 22 during his final season last fall.
As a bowler, McKenna had no peers in northern New Jersey. Using his unique two-handed approach, McKenna captured the Bergen County individual championship last January. He compiled the highest average in north Jersey with a 228.8 average. He bowled one perfect game of 300 and was the lone New Jersey bowler to attain two 800 series in the same year. McKenna finished second in his state sectional, the North Jersey Group I-Section 1B by one single solitary pin.
And as a baseball player, McKenna was a sensational pitcher/shortstop for the Vikings, batting .393 with 22 RBI and posting a 4-3 record with a 1.93 earned run average on the mound. McKenna fired no-hitters in his seasonal opener in both his junior and senior years. McKenna went on to break the school record for strikeouts recorded in a career.
For his efforts, McKenna has been selected as The Observer Co-Male Athlete of the Year for the 2018-2019 scholastic sports season. The other deserving honoree will be named in next week’s editions.
McKenna, who has already signed his national letter of intent to play baseball at Caldwell University in the fall, liked the idea of being a unique high school athlete.
“I definitely like it,” McKenna said. “I played basketball as a freshman, but all my close friends like Brendan Barth were going out for the bowling team. So I decided to try something new. I used to bowl a little in middle school, but I never thought I was good enough to bowl in high school.”
So McKenna, with no prior bowling experience, merely went out and bowled to a 188 average as a sophomore.
“When I first thought about bowling, I didn’t know how I would contribute,” McKenna said. “I just went to practice and I was able to put up the high scores.”
And as for bowling two-handed?
“I don’t know,” McKenna said. “I never threw it one handed. I watched bowling on TV and I saw (Australian) Jason Belmonte (who is one of the top bowlers on the Pro Bowlers Tour) and I just made my game around him. I shaped my game to be like him.”
And get this? McKenna had no idea about the dots and lines on a bowling lane.
“I didn’t worry about the lines or dots,” McKenna said. “I just focused on how I thought I could put up better scores.”
North Arlington bowling coach Dan Farinola was amazed at McKenna’s instant prowess.
“I think Eric is just one of those kids who is freakishly good at whatever he tries,” Farinola said. “I had never seen anything like it in my coaching days. Once he picked up the technical side of the game, his average just shot up. He just picked it up naturally. I was in shock. I was floored the first time I saw him bowl. I never had anyone like that. It just doesn’t happen.”
Farinola said that McKenna became instantly determined.
“He wanted to be the best bowler in our league and he did that,” Farinola said. “Then, he wanted to be the best bowler in the county and he did that. He wanted to be the best in the state and missed by a pin. He learned from anyone he could and just wanted to win. And now I have almost every kid trying with two hands because of him.”
McKenna was a varsity soccer player from the time he laced up the cleats for the Vikings.
“I was a winger as a freshman and a sophomore, then I moved up to forward,” McKenna said. “As the years went by, I knew my focus was going to be on baseball, but soccer was fun.”
North Arlington head boys’ soccer coach Jesse Dembowski also knew that McKenna’s natural athleticism would translate on the pitch.
“Eric is just naturally athletic,” Dembowski said. “He had all the tools to be a good soccer player. He could dribble, shoot with either foot, but he was very determined. He’s just outstanding in anything he does. He wants the ball and wants to score. He didn’t let anyone or anything stand in his way. He’s the kid you wanted to have the ball in a key situation.”
Baseball was the hardest sport for McKenna to master – and the sport he loved the most.
“Freshman year, there were 13 or 14 seniors on the varsity and I didn’t think I had a chance to play,” McKenna said. “By the time I became a sophomore, I started right away and that’s where my career started. I always liked pitching since Little League. But I took pride in my fielding and hitting. I wanted to help the others on my team as much as I could.”
North Arlington head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono knew that McKenna was special.
“As a pitcher, to have someone who got the ball every four days and gave you his best. I think he just needed to get better physically and emotionally. I think he matured tremendously over the four years. He understood what it took and ended up doing great things for North Arlington baseball.”
McKenna becomes the sixth North Arlington male athlete to receive The Observer’s top award, joining Michael Gross (2007-2008), Peter Santos (2009-2010), Tyler Krychkowski (2011-2012), A.J. Nocciolo (2012-2013) and Danny Cordeiro (2013-2014).
“It really means a lot to me,” McKenna said. “I never saw it coming. I worked hard for four years, but I didn’t think I was doing anything special. It’s very humbling to me. Just to be considered with the other great athletes in North Arlington and the area.”
His coaches know.
“He’s a generational athlete,” Marcantuono said. “He’s the kind of kid you get once in a decade if you’re lucky. You knew that whatever sport he tried, even if it was track and field or golf, he would be good. Eric was a competitor, super competitive. But he also liked to have fun. He definitely left his mark on our baseball program. He’s the kind of athlete who will go unmatched for a very long time.”
“He shouldn’t be so good in three totally different sports,” Dembowski said. “It makes no sense. Each sport uses different muscles and different techniques. He’s just an amazing kid. He ranks up there with the best we’ve ever had and is definitely deserving of this award.”
North Arlington’s Eric McKenna (center left) receives the 2018-2019 Observer Male Athlete of the Year award from Observer Sports Columnist Jim Hague (center right). From left are North Arlington High School Principal Patrick Bott, North Arlington High School Vice-Principal Dennis Kenny, Athletic Director Josh Aronowiczm Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen Yurchak, Scott and Irene McKenna, Eric’s parents, McKenna, Hague, head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono, head bowling coach Dan Farinola and head soccer coach Jesse Dembowski. Photo courtesy of Jim Hague
North Arlington High School’s Eric McKenna (right) is the 2018-2019 Observer Male Athlete of the Year, as proclaimed on the school’s marquee. McKenna is pictured with Observer Sports Columnist Jim Hague (left). Photo courtesy of 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.”