The spring sports season was all set to hold the first week of practice, albeit a week late this year due to new restrictions placed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
So with the late start of March 8, the local baseball and softball coaches had to scramble a bit in conjunction with the week’s delay to the first pitchers-and-catchers’ workouts.
Then, just as an added problem, Mother Nature didn’t exactly cooperate with the already-delayed practice start, dropping a host of frigid temperatures, rain, snow, sleet and high winds, forcing all of the local teams into their respective gyms for the beginning of the new season.
“I was talking to a lot of other coaches and when I saw the weather reports, I said, ‘Ok, here it goes again,’” said veteran Lyndhurst head baseball coach Pat Auteri. “We only had a couple of days to get outside with the pitchers and catchers.”
Auteri said that he was looking forward to the start of the season because the Golden Bears need to find pitchers for the coming season.
“Usually, we have had three or so pitchers returning,” Auteri said. “But I don’t have that this year. And for the first time in six years, we don’t have a Venezia pitcher.”
It’s true. Both Venezia brothers, Frankie and Adam, have moved on to college. Frankie is at UMass-Lowell, rehabbing after Tommy John surgery to his elbow. Adam, who graduated last June, is just beginning at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. It’s bizarre to see the Golden Bears’ roster without a Venezia brother on it.
“We have a lot of new faces, especially at pitcher,” Auteri said. “We’re very young, but we don’t use that as an excuse.”
The good news for the Golden Bears is that they are headed Thursday for a bit of spring training in the Sunshine State. The team will head to Fort Pierce, Florida for five days and six scrimmages from teams all over the United States and Canada.
The Golden Bears had to return home a day early from Florida in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced a cancellation of the entire season. They weren’t able to go to Florida last year because of the pandemic, so that made this year’s trip even more important.
“We’re glad to be back at it,” Auteri said. “We’re going to go full throttle down there to see what we have.”
The Golden Bears welcome back starting shortstop Johnny Lembo, the three-sport senior who is known more in the fall as “Johnny Football.” Senior Vinnie Auteri, the coach’s nephew, also returns. Seniors Ethan Rodriguez and Ben Nowinski are also veteran contributors.
Auteri doesn’t know why the NJSIAA changed the start date for official practices.
“I don’t understand it,” Auteri said. “It gives us limited time to get ready. With the weather, there’s only so much we can do in the gym. That’s why it was so important for us to get to Florida and have a nice little spring training. It’s going to be like a boot camp. It’s a little nerve wracking, but it’s also very exciting.”
Paul Marcantuono begins his 15th season as the head baseball coach at North Arlington.
“We were able to get outside a little bit last week,” Marcantuono said. “Our pitchers tried to extend their arms a little bit, but we got outside and it got cold real quick. It’s really tough on the kids. We wanted to have full team tryouts Friday and Saturday, but the weather killed that.”
Marcantuono said that he was encouraged by the initial turnout.
“We were blessed to have good numbers, some 34 kids, 12 of whom are freshmen,” Marcantuono said. “We are young. We graduated some good kids (including Observer Male Athlete of the Year Tony Alho). It really is tough when we get snow, so when we get the opportunity, we have to cram it all in outside when we get the chance. But we’ll make it work. After all, it is baseball in the northeast. We have to get used to the cold.”
Marcantuono likes the makeup of his team, which includes senior Christian Gerace, who made All-NJIL last season, but moves behind the plate this season to replace Alho.
Other key players include Oscar Torres and Eddie Ortiz, who will both play in the outfield and pitch for the Vikings.
Jimmy Pickel is the veteran head softball coach at Kearny High School. Pickel didn’t think his team suffered from the awful weather last week.
“It was kind of frustrating, because we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Pickel said. “I would look at the weather, get excited that we had good weather and then that would change. The first week is always cold and nasty, so we kind of expected it.”
But there is good news with the Kardinals.
“We’re doing everything again down at the (Gunnell) Oval,” said Pickel, now that the refurbishing of the park is completed. The last few seasons, the Kards had to play at Veterans Park on Belgrove Drive.
The Kards have a veteran roster than includes junior pitcher/first baseman Maci Covello, senior centerfielder Carley Natosi and senior catcher Mikalah Franchino.
“We’re young, but we have veterans,” Pickel said.
Needless to say, spring has sprung on the local high school baseball and softball teams.
“As a coach and as a player, you have to get excited for this time of year,” Marcantuono said. “I mean, we lost the entire season in 2020, so we’re fortunate to just be out there and playing baseball. I’m loving this, but I’m always excited for this time of year.”
Lyndhurst head baseball coach Pat Auteri welcomes a handful of returnees, but needs to develop a pitching staff during their spring training trip to Fort Pierce, Florida this week. Photo by Jim Hague
North Arlington senior Christian Gerace earned All-NJIL honors last season, but moves to catcher this season, replacing Observer Athlete of the Year Tony Alho. 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.”