Editor’s note: Story updated July 21, 2021 at 12:30 p.m., to correct the spelling of Anthony Raffa.
Anthony Mielnicki knows just a little bit about building a champion.
After all, the Nutley native and manager of the Nutley East Little League All-Star team that played in the District 8 12-year-old tournament last week is the uncle of Vito Mielnicki, Jr., the up and coming welterweight boxer whose next fight will be later this month at the Prudential Center in Newark. Top Rank Promotions considers the 19-year-old Mielnicki as one of their top boxers in the Top Rank stable, run by the legendary Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum.
As the manager of a baseball team playing in the highly competitive Little League district tourney, Anthony Mielnicki knew what his team needed entering the District 8 tourney – with a possible berth to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. next month.
“We have a ton of pitching depth,” said the baseball manager Mielnicki, not the boxer. “We have a lot of power bats as well. That’s how you win in this tournament.”
Well, Mielnicki served as a soothsayer, because Nutley East won the District 8 championship and moved on to the Section 2 tournament that ironically is being played in Nutley this year. It just happened to be that Nutley American Little League applied to host the sectional tournament before the pandemic hit last year. As circumstance would have it, there is a Nutley team in the state sectional tourney, but it’s not the host team in Nutley American, rather neighboring rival Nutley East.
And as fate would have it, Nutley East had to defeat Nutley American twice to win the District 8 title, with both games being 1-0 pitching duels. Nutley East scrapped out a run in each of the rivalry games and the pitching certainly held up.
“For me, I would much rather go to different venues in the area than play a team from our town,” Mielnicki said. “But that’s me. I enjoy that.”
The manager had to enjoy the way his team responded against the neighboring rival, winning both games by 1-0 scores. Nutley East also defeated Bloomfield in the first round to advance to the showdowns against Nutley American.
Leading the way for Nutley East was right-handed pitcher Mike Berardesco. The 12-year-old Berardesco pitched a complete game shutout in the first win over Nutley American in just 63 pitches. Incredibly, Berardesco did not walk a batter.
“The defense played well behind him,” Mielnicki said. “He pitched well. But personally, I think his main position moving forward will be catcher. He’s a power pitcher who throws real hard.”
Another stellar pitcher is Anthony Huaranga, who is another 12-year-old power pitcher. Huaranga is the son of Harrison High School athletic director Kim Huaranga and former St. Peter’s Prep standout football player Alfredo Huaranga. So athletic prowess is in young Anthony’s genes.
“What’s great about him is that he’s a humble kid,” Mielnicki said. “When he’s on, no one can touch him.”
Anthony Huaranga pitched the second game against Nutley American to advance Nutley East to the sectional tourney.
Gabe Rodriguez is another 12-year-old right-hander.
“He’s a deceptive pitcher,” Mielnicki said. “He hits his spots well and pitches to those locations. He changes speeds well and has a very good changeup.”
Kennan Bilotta is another 12-year-old hurler, but he’s a left-hander.
“He’s a little guy,” Mielnicki said. “He has a good baseball sense and plays every game like he’s on television. He has a great heart and can handle multiple tasks.”
Dallin Smith is another 12-year-old right-handed pitcher.
“He can come in and hit spots,” Mielnicki said.
Kevin Gallagher is an 11-year-old righty with a very bright future. Gallagher comes in out of the bullpen.
The catching duties are shared between Berardesco, Huaranga and Bilotta.
“I have confidence in all three of them behind the plate,” Mielnicki said.
Jackson Veneziano is another 12-year-old catcher. How often does one find a Little League All-Star team with four catchers?
“It’s unreal,” Mielnicki said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Depending on who we’re playing, that’s how we determine who catches. If a team has speed, it opens up windows to do other things.”
Mielnicki likes the fire power of his team.
“We can hit the ball,” Mielnicki said. “We just didn’t hit the way we thought we would. But we still won three games.”
Make it four. Nutley East defeated Elmora of Elizabeth, the District 7 champions, 7-2, in their first game in the sectionals.
Bilotta and Huaranga share duties at first base, with Gallagher and Smith sharing the time at second base.
The shortstop is Brady King, who Mielnicki raves about.
“He’s probably one of the best shortstops I’ve ever seen in Little League,” Mielnicki said of King, who definitely has a solid baseball name. “He has great range at shortstop. The kid gives you everything he has.”
Rodriguez is the team’s starter at third base.
The left field duties are shared by Veneziano and Louis Della Volpe.
The centerfielder is a good one in Dominic Saladino.
“He flies all over the field after the ball,” Mielnicki said. “He has good speed and a good arm. He can cover so much ground out there.”
Right field belongs to Jackson Poole.
“He’s a power hitter with a strong arm and great range,” Mielnicki said.
How many Little League teams have two kids named Jackson? It’s certainly a rarity.
The other substitutes are Anthony Raffa and Mia Fernicola. You read that right. Mia is a girl playing with and against the boys.
“She’s fast,” Mielnicki said. “She has a quick bat. She comes to every practice and wants to play. She’s doing a great job.”
Mielnicki is blessed to have a good coaching staff with Robert DeLascio and Joe Bilotta.
Mielnicki said that his players just love to play the game.
“They play all year round,” Mielnicki said. “They play travel ball and go all over to play.”
Mielnicki said it was tough to face Nutley American twice in consecutive games.
“These kids all know teach other,” Mielnicki said. “It really was bittersweet. I personally think we should be together to form one team, but what do I know?”
Mielnicki coaches a lot of the youngsters on both teams on his travel team called Team Central.
But for now, the concentration is on winning the sectional title and moving on to the state tournament at Glassboro this weekend.
“I hope we get there,” Mielnicki said. “We need to get support for these kids from the community.”
Chances are good that if Nutley East is playing in the state tournament this weekend, there will be a strong local contingency in Glassboro cheering the local kids on.
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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.”