The Belleville High School softball team will begin the 2021 season on the road. The Buccaneers will remain as the visiting team through the first few weeks of the young season.
The major improvements to Corino Field, the Buccaneers’ home facility for ages, have not been completed, forcing the team to face all of its early opponents away from Belleville.
“Hopefully, the field will be done in the middle of May,” said veteran Belleville head softball coach Chris Cantarella, the man who took over when long-time coach Carl Corino retired, enabling the Belleville Board of Education to rename the facility after Corino. Cantarella, also the girls’ basketball coach at the school, was Corino’s assistant before Corino stepped down.
“We figure that we’ll play our first nine games on the road,” Cantarella said. “But at this point, we’ll take anything. I’m glad we’re out there playing. I’d much rather play nine road games than no games at all.”
As we know, the entire 2020 season was wiped out by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge, that’s for sure,” Cantarella said. “It’s definitely going to be different. But I think we can handle it.”
Cantarella welcomes a very young roster to the field in the new season that opened Monday against Caldwell – yes, on the road.
“We’re junior-loaded,” Cantarella said. “We have five seniors and they’ll all play. We also have some sophomores who will be mixed in there.”
Despite all the questions and uncertainties, Cantarella likes the makeup of his team.
“I really like these kids,” Cantarella said. “They were really good on the JV (junior varsity) level as freshmen and sophomores. I’m hoping that it carries over to the varsity level. It’s a tough team. They want to go out there and get it. With that attitude, I can deal with it.”
As everyone knows, the key to a good high school softball team is at pitcher – and Cantarella feels that the Buccaneers have plenty of pitching.
“We do have good pitching,” Cantarella said. “That I know.”
Cantarella has always liked to mix up his pitchers and not rely on just one hurler to do the bulk of the work. That’s the case this season as well.
Joanne Calvacca and Alyssa Rivera are the two senior right-handers who will anchor the Buccaneers’ pitching staff. Both pitched sparingly as sophomores two years ago.
“They both have developed very nicely,” Cantarella said. “They’re both going to get their shot to be out there. Because there are several times we play three games in a row, we need both pitchers. They’ll both get their chances to pitch. Alyssa throws a little bit harder and has a nice screwball. Joanne changes speeds very well. They do complement each other well.”
The Buccaneers utilized three catchers during the preseason and much like his pitching staff, Cantarella is certain that all three catchers will play somewhere.
Senior Selena Quiles is a transfer from Abundant Life Academy who has fit in well with the rest of the Buccaneers. Quiles provides a big bat in the Belleville lineup.
Senior Maleyna Cruz is another backstop who just might play another position from time to time. Junior Ashley Herman rounds out the trio of Buccaneer backstops.
“They’re all pretty even back there,” Cantarella said. “I think there’s a chance all of them will be in the lineup.”
At first base, Cantarella will use one of the aforementioned catchers, as well as junior Lilyanne Weinberger, who provides a big target to throw to at first.
The second baseman will be senior Melissa Palacios.
“She’s a hard-nosed, scrappy player,” Cantarella said of Palacios. “She knows how to play the position. She also has a nice bat. She’s a good contact hitter.”
Junior Taina Carrasquillo is the mainstay at shortstop.
“She has good speed and a good arm,” Cantarella said. “There’s a lot of pressure on her, because she’s going to be in the middle of our lineup.”
Third base duties are being shared by seniors Quiles, Cruz and freshman Deanna McIntosh, who has been impressive in the preseason.
Quiles is also in the mix for one of the outfield positions. Obviously, the girl can’t play all of the positions like Bugs Bunny did in that cartoon against the Gashouse Gorillas, but if Cantarella had his way, he’d find a way to pencil in Quiles all over.
“I love the fact that I can put the kid in different spots,” Cantarella said. “The mere thought that we can put her all over really helps us. She has a good arm to play the outfield if we need her there. She reacts well to the ball.”
The other outfielders include juniors Kristine Ragos and Lisbeth Azcona and sophomores Isabella Aguilar and Ashley Cely.
“Ragos has been very impressive so far,” Cantarella said. “She swings the bat well and knows the game well. Aguilar is a nice little hitter, a top of the lineup kind of kid. Cely is a scrappy player who is a good defensive outfielder. She’s learning the positions all over again. Azcona can play second base, shortstop, third base and the outfield. She’s in the mix at all of the positions, because she swings the bat nicely.”
If Cantarella chooses to use the designated player or designated hitter, it might be Herman or Cruz.
“Herman hits the ball too well not to be in the lineup,” Cantarella said.
Another key reserve is Lissette Azcona, the twin sister of Lisbeth. Lissette Azcona is a first baseman/catcher. She’s another looking for a spot in the regular lineup.
After the Buccaneers open against Caldwell, they have to travel to Leonia for an independent game. Now, there’s a bit of a haul to go through George Washington Bridge traffic for.
Despite no home field and no clue about how talented the youngsters are, Cantarella is hopeful that the Bucs can compete in the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division.
“I’m absolutely optimistic,” Cantarella said. “I think we have the potential to be pretty good. I think we can win 17-to-18 games. We can compete with the best teams in our division.”
That means locking horns with Montclair, Bloomfield and the opening day opponent Caldwell. It’s a tough chore.
“I think we can handle it,” Cantarella said. “I think we can be pretty good.”
The Belleville softball program will count a lot on their five seniors pictured here. From right to left are Joanne Calvacca, Maleyna Cruz, Melissa Palacios, Selena Quiles and Alyssa Rivera, with head coach Chris Cantarella looking on (right). 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.”