Everything was in place for a highly successful high school baseball season at Harrison High in 2020. The Blue Tide had a veteran lineup, solid pitchers, a dedicated coaching staff. It was all there. And then…
COVID-19 became a part of the world’s daily lexicon. Coronavirus was more well known than Corona cerveza. Harrison’s best laid plans went down the drain, like the entire spring sports season.
“It was very disappointing to lose the year,” said Harrison veteran head baseball coach Jairo Mendez, the former Kearny High and Montclair State University standout pitcher. “Basically, we lost two years that we didn’t get a chance to do anything. We could have competed last year. We had a lot of guys who had varsity experience and who had played a lot of baseball together in their lives. We have a lot of sophomores who are being thrown into the fire. They have to step up and play right away on the varsity level. It’s not easy.”
Mendez said that he and his staff had been working with the Blue Tide on basic fundamentals.
“Baseball is a game of repetition,” Mendez said. “You have to do things over and over. It’s very important to work on the strategy of the game, but it’s hard to get that all in during practice time.”
Still, Mendez is optimistic that the Blue Tide can be a competitive bunch this season.
“I like the attitude of the players,” Mendez said. “They are retaining information and keep asking questions. That’s basically all I can ask for. We have to learn from each other as we go along. We’ll talk about things that we go over.”
Mendez said that the biggest step a young team can make is getting over the mental approach.
“I tell them all the time that the toughest part is the mental part,” Mendez said. “The baseball IQ is very important. We work on both the physical and the mental part of the game.”
Mendez is a pitching-first coach and this team will be no different.
Leading the way is junior right-hander Jake Mulrenan. The 6-foot-6 Mulrenan has grown about five inches since his freshman year.
“He’s become more of a pitcher,” Mendez said of Mulrenan. “He has a better understanding of the philosophy of pitching. He’s learning to keep the ball low. He throws a nice changeup and curve. He’s a knowledgeable kid.”
Mulrenan is such a student of the game that he’s taking the time to work with some of the freshman pitchers.
“When he’s helping the younger kids, I just let him be,” Mendez said. “He’ll do anything to help this team. He’s grown so much physically. He really could be very good. He’s learning that velocity doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have location. That’s why he’s becoming more of a pitcher.”
Mendez said that he’s spending time with Mulrenan on his pitching mechanics.
“It’s nice to have a pitcher with so much potential,” Mendez said. “He’s a very knowledgeable pitcher.”
Mulrenan won three games for the Blue Tide as a freshman two seasons ago. It should be very interesting to see what he can do this season.
Another quality pitcher is fellow junior righty Matthew Cabadelo.
“He’s still understanding how to pitch,” Mendez said. “He’s learning how to do things the right way. He’s a thrower right now. He has to become a pitcher.”
Much like Mendez was as a high school and college pitcher. Mendez became more effective when he learned to pitch from different arm angles, like delivering pitches side armed or at ¾ capacity over the top.
“I told the kids the other day that they can’t be afraid to try different arm angles,” Mendez said. “It came pretty naturally for me. For some, like Matt, it’s a learning process. But he’s throwing strikes and locating the ball better. It’s a work in progress right now.”
Sophomore Riley Kelly is the lone left-hander on the Blue Tide’s staff.
“He’s a young kid who has a lot to learn,” Mendez said. “He just needs to find his command in the (strike) zone.”
Junior Dylan Villata is a righty with potential.
“He’s just getting his mechanics down,” Mendez said. “He’s not going to be overpowering. He needs to be more of a listener. I’m working with the kid. But he needs to listen. I think he’s going to be able to keep us in games.”
Senior Nick Renkart and junior Ryan Rodriguez are both right-handers who will obviously get a chance to throw.
“It’s going to become an interesting season watching these young kids pitch,” Mendez said.
The catcher is senior Anthony Mascellino, who was the team’s starting backstop as a sophomore.
“He’s one of our captains,” Mendez said. “He’s a good role model for the others to follow. He has such a great positive impact on the rest of the team.”
Kelly and Villata have been sharing the duties at first base.
“I think they’re all going to play different positions throughout the year,” Mendez said.
Adam Ayatallah is the team’s second baseman. The junior has shown a lot of potential and will also get his chance to get on the mound.
“He can be a smooth infielder,” Mendez said. “He has good hands and good range. He will also be one of our top hitters. He’s our leadoff guy. He has to get on base.”
Cabadelo is the team’s shortstop when he’s not pitching.
“He’s a good player,” Mendez said. “He can go and get it. He’s a very good fielder. He is a quiet kid who wants to compete. He’s a solid hitter. He makes contact. We’re going to rely on him a lot. He was very excited to get back on the field. He couldn’t wait.”
Ethan Oeckel is the team’s third baseman. Oeckel, who comes from the long line of Ferriero-Oeckel family in Harrison, is a junior.
“He’s a contact hitter who puts the bat on the ball,” Mendez said of Oeckel. “He can definitely be a good player. He just needs to put in the work.”
Senior Daniel Aguilar has come out for baseball for the first time and has earned a spot in the Blue Tide outfield.
“His buddies convinced him to come out for the team,” Mendez said. “He hasn’t played since Little League, but he’s shown some promise.”
Mulrenan is the centerfielder when he’s not pitching. Junior Ryan Rodriguez plays center when Mulrenan is on the mound.
Sophomore John Kuhrt is the team’s right fielder.
“He’s fit in very well,” Mendez said. “He’s a utility player who can play anywhere. Right now, he’s in right field.”
The Blue Tide opened Monday against North Arlington and will play Becton Regional on Friday.
“The kids have worked hard,” Mendez said. “We have a bunch of great kids who love to play the game. I enjoy being out there with them.”
As long as the pitching develops, the Blue Tide will be fun to watch as well.
Junior Matt Cabelelo will be one of the top hurlers for the Harrison baseball team this season. Photo by Jim Hague
The Harrison pitching staff will have to pave the way for the rest of the young team. Front to back are Riley Kelly, Ryan Rodriguez, Nicholas Renkart, Adam Ayatallah, Matt Cabedelo and Jake Mulrenan. Head coach Jairo Mendez is to the left. 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.”