Former Observer AOYs Higgins, McKenna reflect on lost college seasons

A year ago, for the first time in the nearly 20-year history of awarding the top male high school athlete in The Observer circulation area, there was a deadlock between two well deserving athletes.

Eric McKenna, who was a three-sport standout (soccer, bowling and baseball) at North Arlington High School, and Marty Higgins, who was a basketball and baseball star at Nutley High School, was each presented with a plaque as The Observer Co-Male Athlete of the Year.

There was no way possible to differentiate one from the other, so they both were honored.

The two deserving athletes also had another important aspect in common. Both McKenna and Higgins received scholarships to play baseball on the collegiate level – McKenna at nearby Caldwell University and Higgins at NCAA Division I staple St. John’s University in New York.

They were both on their way to enjoying fruitful campaigns as college baseball players.

But both had their freshman seasons unfortunately brought to a crashing halt by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, just as both were getting used to being college athletes.

Here’s a look at the freshman campaigns of Eric McKenna and Marty Higgins.

Eric McKenna


Eric McKenna was all set to be a pitcher at Caldwell University. The right-handed hurler had already been called upon to be a fixture in the Cougars’ pitching rotation and got his first taste of college ball by pitching a few innings in some scrimmages in the fall.

“I threw some innings in all of the scrimmages,” McKenna said. “I felt pretty strong. I thought that the first couple of months were going to be an adjustment period.”

McKenna felt comfortable right away with two teammates from nearby Belleville, namely the Wallicky twins, senior catcher Dylan and senior infielder Dustin.

When the time came for the season to begin, McKenna felt like he was ready.

“Going into the season, I knew we had a couple of good kids on our staff,” McKenna said. “I thought it was going to take a couple of starts to settle in.”

McKenna got his first start against Stonehill College on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. on March 9.

“I thought I threw pretty well,” McKenna said. “I let up a couple of unearned runs.”

McKenna pitched 3 1/3 innings in his college debut, allowing five hits and two earned runs, striking out two and walking one. He was saddled with the loss in a 5-0 Caldwell setback.

“Going into the start, I was really nervous,” McKenna said. “But after the first inning, I settled in and started to feel more comfortable. Some of the plays didn’t go our way.”

The Cougars played six games in Florida, before receiving the news that the season was being called to a halt.

“Some of the trainers told us,” McKenna said. “At that point, I didn’t know what to expect. I worked so hard to get ready. We were all excited to come home and start our conference schedule.”

The Cougar players were all told to go to their respective homes and await word as to the next step.

“I didn’t know what to do,” McKenna said. “I started to throw with my brother (Ryan, a 2014 graduate of North Arlington) a little. I knew it wasn’t the most ideal situation.”
After a while, McKenna got used to the idea that the season wasn’t going to resume.

“I was hoping to just get my feet wet this season,” McKenna said. “I knew we all had to take a step back for the right reasons.”

McKenna liked the idea that the NCAA has ruled that all college students can retain the year of eligibility if they so choose to.

“I think it’s fine to say right now that I’ll take it,” McKenna said. “I can always say I have that extra year. But it definitely has been tough.”

McKenna was all set to play in a good college baseball league in New Jersey this summer, the Atlantic Baseball Confederation  Collegiate Baseball League (ABCCL), but that has also been put on hold for the summer months.

So in the meantime, McKenna continues to throw with his brother in North Arlington, along with Dylan Wallicky.

“Incredibly, I didn’t know them from Belleville,” McKenna said of the Wallicky twins. “But now they’re two of my closest friends.”

McKenna is majoring in finance at Caldwell.

“School went well both semesters,” McKenna said. “I’m making sure I’m on top of everything.”

But needless to say, the year didn’t go as planned for McKenna.

“Not at all,” McKenna said. “To say it was wild would be an understatement.”


Marty Higgins


Higgins headed to Astoria, Queens last August with the idea of playing right away with the Red Storm, even though that the team had a new head coach in long-time assistant Mike Hampton.

“I love Coach Hampton,” Higgins said of the new coach, who replaced St. John’s coaching legend and New Jersey native Ed Blankmeyer, after Blankmeyer resigned to become the new manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ affiliate in the New York-Penn League.

“He understands the game and played it at such a high level (Cincinnati Reds’ organization),” Higgins said of Hampton. “I actually love all the coaches we have. I was sad about Coach Blankmeyer leaving. He recruited me and he’s one of the all-time greatest coaches in the game.”

Hampton had the Red Storm working hard through the fall.

“I’m guessing we were on the field from like 12:30 to 5:30 every day,” Higgins said. “They were like grind-them-out days.”

Higgins said that he did well in the fall.

“We had a few intrasquad scrimmages that I played in,” Higgins said. “We all played in those.”

Higgins played mostly second and third base for the Red Storm in the fall and had chances to play against the University of Maryland there and against Manhattan College in New York.

“I think I hit the ball pretty well,” Higgins said. “I went 3-for-6 against Maryland. I had about 10 at-bats in those fall games.”

Over the Christmas break in Nutley, Higgins said that he hit and threw with former teammate at Nutley Josh O’Neill, himself a Division I player at Stony Brook.

“I hit live occasionally,” Higgins said. “I either worked out or hit every day.”

When Higgins returned to Astoria after the Christmas break, he was ready to go.

“I was willing to do whatever it took to help the team win,” Higgins said.

When the baseball season began in late February – yes, college baseball begins in February in the northeast, as crazy as it sounds – Higgins didn’t get a chance to play right away.

“I didn’t play for the first two weeks,” Higgins said.

But Higgins got his first chance to play against the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and grounded out.

“I hit it hard, but I grounded out,” Higgins said. “I was very nervous, but it was a good nervous. I got my bat on the ball. I don’t even know how I felt. I guess it was the first time I felt that way since my first high school game. But I was totally ready.”

Higgins then got to play against St. Peter’s and Iona, getting hits in each game, getting a double against St. Peter’s. Higgins started the game against Iona at home March 11 at second base. Higgins was planning to head to Fordham for a game on March 13, when everything came to a halt.

“We were told that we weren’t going to Fordham and everything was postponed for two weeks,” Higgins said. “None of thought that it would cause the whole season to get wiped out. But when we didn’t hear anything after two weeks, we figured it out.”

Needless to say, Higgins was upset.

“I was very crushed by it,” Higgins said. “But I made the most of things. I set up a gym in my garage and lifted weights here. I went to my uncle (Mike, who played in the Colorado Rockies’ organization) and he has a batting cage in his basement. So I lifted with free weights and a bench press. I trained with my uncle, because he knows what it takes to get to the next level.”

Much like McKenna, Higgins said that he will more than likely take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.

“I can’t see why I wouldn’t,” Higgins said. “I might as well take the extra year. I’m basically going to be a freshman again.”

Higgins had plans to play in the Valley Collegiate Baseball League in Virginia for the Covington Lumberjacks.

“I was really excited to go there,” Higgins said.

But that league canceled play this summer.

“I never expected anything like this,” Higgins said. “It’s been just a weird year for everybody. It’s the first year I haven’t really participated in a sports game for three months. I think it forces everyone to appreciate how much sports means.”

Higgins said that he’s ready to go back to Queens to begin his second freshman year.

“If I get the call, I’m ready to go,” Higgins said.

Higgins is a sociology major with a focus on pre-med. He hopes to become a physician’s assistant down the road.

Needless to say, none of The Observer Athletes of the Year expected their freshman years to be like they turned out.



Former Observer Athletes of the Year Eric McKenna of North Arlington (left) and Marty Higgins of Nutley (left) saw their freshman college baseball seasons end abruptly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photos 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.”