Veteran Vikings poised to make a difference in ‘21

The great author Oscar Wilde once wrote, “You can’t put a price tag on experience.”

North Arlington High School head baseball coach Paul Marcantuono knows what Wilde was talking about better than anyone.

That’s because Marcantuono welcomes back seven seniors this season, even after the entire program was shut down a year ago – like everyone else who participated in spring sports – due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There aren’t many local teams that can boast with such a veteran roster, even with North Arlington being a small Group I school in terms of enrollment.

“We have a bunch of kids who played a lot as freshmen and sophomores,” Marcantuono said. “With the kids having varsity experience, it made the early practices easier. We also have some kids that are new, but the veteran kids are leading the younger ones well. They came ready to work from the first day. They’re all excited to be back.”

Marcantuono likes the attitude of his veteran group.

“They’re all smiling and happy to be out there,” Marcantuono said. “It got taken away from them last year. Most of these kids have been together since grade school. They’re used to each other. It definitely helps having these seniors with experience.”

The core of the Vikings’ roster were all on a North Arlington Recreation team that went to the Senior Little League state championships in 2017, bringing North Arlington its first baseball championship of any kind since 1965.

“They all have that experience under their belts,” Marcantuono said. “That really has helped so far. They’re so reliable. They’re there every day for practice on time and ready to go. They’re reliable with their grades and reliable in baseball. They’re pumped and ready to go.”

The Vikings open their 2021 season next Monday against neighboring rival Harrison, whom they participated in a scrimmage with last Saturday.

“It’s really a relief coaching kids like them,” Marcantuono said. “They’re what you expect from veterans. They know what I expect and they pass it down to the others, who are buying into it. It’s a good mix.”

The Vikings are led by senior right-handed pitcher/shortstop Joey Witt, who has been a fixture in the Vikings’ lineup since his freshman year.

“He’s won some big games for us,” said Marcantuono, referring to the Vikings’ big win over Roselle Park in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I playoffs in 2019. “I’m going to rely on Joey to lead us on the mound and in the field at shortstop. He’s our leadoff hitter and the one who gets our lineup going. He’s an aggressive hitter and has a ton of power.”

Incredibly, the 2021 high school season will mark the first time in his long baseball career that Witt has competed against players his own age. Ever since his Little League days, Witt always played up a level or two.

“If he’s hitting, everyone on the team feels good,” Marcantuono said. “Joey definitely knows the game.”

Another top-flight veteran is senior catcher Tony Alho. The multi-talented Alho earned All-North Jersey Interscholastic Conference honors as a sophomore, when he batted .440, leading the Vikings in doubles and RBI. Alho, also an All-NJIC soccer player as a goalkeeper, is one of the top players in the league.

“Joey and Tony are the leaders of the team,” Marcantuono said. “They’ve been great in practice. Tony works very hard at his position and wants to get better every day. He always asks me about ways he could get better.”

The Vikings have a deep pitching staff. Besides Witt, the Vikings have junior righty Oscar Torres, who throws strikes with his arsenal of fastballs, curves and change-ups. Junior righty Christian Gerace is another proven pitcher.

“He throws the ball very hard,” Marcantuono said about Gerace. “He has a live fastball. If he’s on, he’s on. He’s one of the pitchers we will use a lot.”

Junior Angel Elliott is another righty who pounds the strike zone. Sophomore Devin Rivas, another right-hander, is the Vikings’ quarterback of the future in the fall. Right now, he adds depth to the Vikings’ pitching staff.

“It’s the first time I’ve had a chance to work with him,” Marcantuono said of Rivas. “He has a fastball motion and has potential to be pretty good. He’s a big part of the pitching staff.”

Junior Eddie Ortiz is the team’s lone left hander.

“He’s a control pitcher who throws a ton of strikes,” Marcantuono said. “He’s just getting back from the wrestling season (Ortiz competes for the Lyndhurst/North Arlington cooperative), but he’ll be ready for the season.”

The team is fortunate to have two first basemen, one of whom is a major inspiration to everyone involved with high school sports.

Senior Pete Ziakos, another member of that Senior Little League regional champions, is the main first sacker who has a lot of pop in his bat.

The other is senior Jared Velasquez, who received clearance by his medical team to return to action after undergoing kidney transplant surgery just four months ago.

“It really uplifted me seeing him back,” Marcantuono said. “Considering what he went through and what the family went through. It’s really amazing. I’m impressed with the passion he showed to get back on the field. It really energized me. I’ve coached Jared since he was in sixth grade, so we’ve been very close. When we started (practices), it really wasn’t the same without him here. Once he got cleared and came back, everyone stood and gave him a round of applause. I think the team was uplifted as well. I thought it was going to take a while for him to come back, but he wants to get out there and he’s looking to get back.”

Velasquez was also a pitcher in 2019 as a sophomore and won three games that season.

Senior Donovan Ortiz, Eddie’s older brother, is the team’s second baseman where he also played in 2019.

“He’s been our starting second baseman all along,” Marcantuono said. “We’re going to ask him to play shortstop a little when Joey is pitching. He’s our No. 2 hitter. He has great bat control and is a reliable hitter.”

Witt is the mainstay at shortstop and Gerace is the third baseman.

“Gerace is our No. 3 hitter and he has some power as well,” Marcantuono said. “He knows the game well.”

The outfield will feature Torres, Eddie Ortiz, seniors Jimmy Pizzuta and Chris Fontes, sophomore Kyle Villani and extremely promising freshman Robert Carselda, whom Marcantuono believes is a star of the future.

“He definitely knows how to play,” Marcantuono said of Carselda. “He has to be in the lineup somewhere.”

Marcantuono loves the attitude of senior Pizzuta.

“He’s been in our program for four years,” Marcantuono said. “He will see the field.”

Junior Iker Bouzas is the team’s utility guy who has already seen action at four different positions this spring.

The Vikings are poised to make noise in the NJIC.

“Why not us?” Marcantuono said. “Why can’t it be us this year? We have all the tools in place. We have the talent. Why not us?”

Okay, we’ll bite. Why not the Vikings? We’ll see come June.




Senior shortstop Joey Witt is the player to watch for the North Arlington baseball team this spring. Photo by Jim Hague


Junior Oscar Torres is a key pitcher and outfielder for the North Arlington Vikings. Photo 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.”