A year ago, Belleville had a veteran, senior-heavy squad, resulting in a large group of talented underclassmen left to work in anonymity on the junior varsity level.
Even as the Buccaneers struggled through a 6-16 season, the decision was made to leave this group of youngsters on JV for nearly the entire spring.
The seeds planted last year are starting to bloom in a big way. This sophomore-heavy group has won seven games in a row after a dramatic nine-inning win at Verona on Saturday, the longest streak Belleville has strung together since 2015.
Saturday was the second major comeback win for Belleville. The win streak started on April 4, when it scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning before beating Newark Academy in nine innings.
Two weeks into the season Belleville is off to its best start since 2014 with a sterling 7-1 record and is in contention in the Super Essex Conference’s Colonial Division.
“Last year we had 10 seniors so we really let these kids develop. They all got to play a full year at JV and we went with the older guys (on varsity),” head coach Joe Sorce said. “These kids developed, they worked hard, they played hard in the summer and fall, they worked out in the winter and they came in prepared. They really wanted to play, they wanted to get better.”
Belleville is currently averaging an eye-popping 11.1 runs per game and that offensive onslaught starts right at the top of the lineup with freshman Crismel De Leon leading off followed by sophomore Ayden Carrero.
Carrero is hitting an incredible .555 with 15 runs, 11 RBI and 10 stolen bases while playing good defense at shortstop. Next to him, both in the lineup and on the diamond, is De Leon, who is hitting .409 with 16 runs, eight RBI, seven stolen bases and eight walks. De Leon plays primarily at third base, but depending on who is pitching, will also see time at shortstop, second base and the outfield.
Following them in the batting order is another talented sophomore Jordan Rosario (.346 average, 10 RBI), who splits his time at third base, shortstop and second base.
De Leon, Carrero and Rosario combined for just one varsity at-bat before this season. Such youth and varsity inexperience is also the case on the right side of the infield. Sophomore Derek Gonzalez (seven runs, five stolen bases) shares second base with Rosario. Junior Luis De Leon is another versatile infielder.
At first base, sophomore Rafael Matos is a talented left-handed hitter, who broke out of an early-season slump by reaching base four times against Verona. Matos shares the position with freshman Sean Walsh, who is perhaps the biggest surprise early on, hitting .471 while also being a mainstay in the rotation.
“Sean’s been doing a good job, he’s had some really good at-bats,” said Sorce. “We knew Sean was a good freshman coming in. I didn’t know if he’d be an impact varsity player (right away).”
The outfield was a major concern for Sorce going into the season, especially after losing returning starter Santiago Nunez to injury. Instead, it has turned into a possible strength.
Senior Jacob Mauricio, a returning starter at center field, has eight RBI out of the cleanup spot. Junior Josh Abramson, a starting infielder last year, has taken to left field and sophomore Gabriel Santiago is off to a strong start in right, hitting .467. Senior Joe Guancione, Crismel De Leon, Gonzalez, Walsh, Matos and Jake Santos.
“We weren’t sure what our outfield was going to look like (other than) Mauricio,” Source said. “But these other guys have really stepped up.”
Junior Marino Perez and sophomore Ariancy Paulino split the catching responsibilities for Belleville.
Perez has been a quality reliever as well, allowing just one run in 6 1/3 innings, highlighted by three scoreless innings to pick up the win at Verona.
Leading a bullpen that has been critical for Belleville is junior James Monroig, who has allowed one unearned run, two hits and three walks in nine innings with seven strikeouts. Luis De Leon (eight strikeouts in seven innings) is the third key part of a bullpen that Sorce is more than trusting of.
“We’re using James Monroig as our main reliever and you can argue that James has been our best pitcher,” Source said. “He hasn’t given up (an earned run).
“Our bullpen has been pretty strong and we think that (starting pitchers) Josh (Abramson), Sean (Walsh) and Ayden (Carrero) will get better as the season goes on. We go into games with the plan of using at least two or three pitchers. We like to have Monroig, Marino and Luis, at least two of those guys available.”
Abramson, Carrero and Walsh currently serve as the main cogs of the starting rotation with Santiago also getting a start last week as part of a combined no-hitter with Luis De Leon against University.
Belleville was set to play at Shabazz on April 17 before an April 19 rematch against the Cedar Grove team that handed the Bucs its only loss of the season.
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)