NA baseball: All hands and arms on deck

The North Arlington High School baseball team was making plans for a season to remember in 2020.

The underclassman roster that the Vikings put onto the field a year ago gained a lot of valuable experience a year ago, winning 10 games, including a win over Roselle Park in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs.

Even though the Vikings lost Observer Co-Male Athlete of the Year Eric McKenna to graduation and Caldwell University, they had plenty of talent returning to make a solid run at NJIC and state sectional honors this spring.

“I was thinking watching the state playoff game we won that we had juniors in the outfield and sophomores behind the plate and in the infield,” said veteran North Arlington head coach Paul Marcantuono. “Of course, losing a kid like Eric is tough, but I thought maybe some of the younger kids could absorb some of the things he did for us. Our kids always work hard. They went out on their own during the offseason to hit on their own and throw on their own. They did their winter training.”

Marcantuono, who is entering his 13th season as the Vikings’ head coach, was also impressed with the turnout.

“We had about 16 kids throughout the winter doing their work,” Marcantuono said. “We had 30 kids sign up for tryouts. I was really happy with our numbers. We were ready to go.”

So the Vikings had six preseason workouts, which definitely piqued Marcantuono’s interest.

“I’m optimistic,” Marcantuono said. “I think this team had a chance to have a nice season. We have a lot of experience. The kids are working hard. I saw how determined they are. I was looking forward to the chance to see what we have.”

And then the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic put a stoppage to everything, not just high school sports.

Marcantuono knew that the Vikings had played a lot of baseball together over the last few years, so this season was going to be the culmination of their hard work.

“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Marcantuono said. “I’m still holding out hope. We’re still holding virtual practices online. We’re doing a lot of workouts to get ready. A lot of what I’m doing is motivational for us to be ready and stay ready.”

So if and when the season begins (the NJSIAA decided last week that the spring sports season could be extended to June 30 if needed, as long as the season begins by May 21), the Vikings should be prepared, considering that they have a very deep pitching staff with as many as 11 pitchers capable to take the mound.

“We’ll have all hands on deck,” Marcantuono said.

Or in this case, arms on deck.

Leading the returning pitchers is senior Mike Roman, who enters his fourth season with the Viking varsity.

“He knows the game,” Marcantuono said. “He throws a ton of strikes.”

Marcantuono recalled a workout before the season was halted where Roman threw 30 pitches, 29 of which went for strikes.

“He’s gotten a little taller and stronger,” Marcantuono said. “We know he’s going to throw strikes. He also does a great job of holding runners on base. He relies a lot on his fielders behind him.”

Junior Joey Witt is another right-handed pitcher. Witt, who is a multi-talented athlete, playing football in the fall and basketball in the winter, is a diminutive firecracker on the mound.

“The ball just explodes out of his hand,” Marcantuono said of Witt. “He has a nice breaking ball as well. He fields his position well. He’s a good athlete on the mound and I think the other sports help him in baseball.”

Witt was the winning pitcher of the Vikings’ state playoff win over Roselle Park last year and also fired a two-hit shutout against Weehawken.

Junior right-hander Jared Velazquez is another dependable pitcher.

“His problem in the past was his control, but he’s worked on that,” Marcantuono said. “He came on strong at the end of last year. We’re expecting better things this year. He has a lot of potential.”

Junior right-hander Pete Ziakos is another hurler who has worked on his control.

“He’s taking the right steps to become a better pitcher,” Marcantuono said. “He’s developing other pitches. We were working on calming his motion down.”

Sophomore right-hander Oscar Torres is another Viking pitcher with a ton of promise.

“He threw some innings for us last year,” Marcantuono said. “He got a win against Wallington last year. He’s definitely a factor.”
Sophomore Eddie Ortiz is the lone left-hander on the Vikings’ staff. Ortiz is coming off a successful season with the Lyndhurst-North Arlington wrestling team.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Marcantuono said. “I think wrestling really helped him with his strength and his footwork. He also throws strikes.”

Sophomore Christian Gerace is a right-hander with a lot of potential. He’s a transfer from St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

“He has some velocity and a good breaking ball,” Marcantuono said.

Sophomore Matt Cataffi and freshman Kyle Villani will also get the chance to throw some varsity innings, considering that if and when the shortened season begins, it is believed that as many as six games will be scheduled each week with the possibility of some doubleheaders. Thus the all hands – and arms – on deck reference. If you are a pitcher in North Arlington High School, you’re going to get a chance to throw.

“We don’t want to rush kids back,” Marcantuono said. “They’re not throwing off a mound right now, so the kids are going to get out there and try to throw as hard as they can right away.”

So chances are you’re going to see a lot of two, three and maybe four inning outings from pitchers to start the abbreviated season.

“We want to ease them back into it,” Marcantuono said.

The pitchers have a brilliant backstop to throw to.

Junior catcher Tony Alho, a two-time Observer Athlete of the Week for soccer and baseball, returns for his third season behind the dish. Alho was a First Team All-North Jersey Interscholastic League honoree last year, batting .428 with 18 RBI.

“He just keeps getting better and better every year,” Marcantuono said. “Behind the plate, hitting the ball, in every facet, he’s getting better. He’s fun to watch. And you can see him becoming more of a vocal leader, telling the others what to do. He’s becoming that catcher you want to have.”

First base duties are handled by returning starter Velazquez, who is an excellent defensive first sacker. Ziakos will see time at first as well.

Junior Donovan Ortiz is the second baseman.

“He’s a good defensive player who gets timely hits,” Marcantuono said. “He makes all the plays at second.”

Witt and Roman share the duties at shortstop with Ziakos, Gerace and senior Eddie Walters, the ice hockey sensation, holding down things at third base.

Senior Lucas Hughes returns to his spot in centerfield with his twin brother Owen starting in left field.

“Lucas is a good defensive centerfielder,” Marcantuono said. “If the ball is hit to him, he’s going to get it. Not many people going to argue with that. He covers a lot of ground. Owen does as well.”

Torres and Ortiz will also see time in the outfield, along with juniors Ricky Joa and Chris Fontes. Seniors Jacob Taylor, Dhruvil Desai and Steven Lester and sophomore Iker Bouzas will also see playing time this season, with the talented Bouzas playing all positions.

“He’s very versatile,” Marcantuono said.

So the Vikings should be an improved team this season, if and when the state declares it’s time to say Play Ball.




Senior right-handed pitcher Mike Roman will be one of the North Arlington top pitchers this spring. Photo by Jim Hague


North Arlington Junior catcher Tony Alho is one of the best all-around players in the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference.

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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.”