When Jayden Diaz got the final out of Saturday’s game against Newark East Side, he and his Kearny teammates walked off the Franklin School Field, they did so with a smile on their face.
Such smiles were a rare sight before Saturday’s 4-3 victory for the Kardinals, understandable considering the seven-game losing streak it had endured prior.
“It was a big weight off of our shoulders,” Kearny head coach Dave Smart said. “It was nice to see the boys come off the field finally with smiles on their faces and not that look of defeat. It was definitely uplifting.
“They worked for it. It all fell together and it was a good win for us. We are better than our record shows.”
Despite its 2-9 record, Kearny remains within striking distance of a potential state tournament berth as it embarks on the second half of the season.
If the Kardinals are going to turn their season around, it starts with a top half of the lineup that has flashed the potential to do damage, but has rarely been clicking at the same time.
One of those middle of the order bats is senior Rexhep Berisha, who hit a two-run home run as part of Kearny’s three-run bottom of the sixth inning. Berisha, who’s primarily a designated hitter, but also sees time at first base, has been one the Kardinals’ best hitters so far, batting .310 with two home runs and a team-high six RBI.
“It definitely picked up their spirits and got them going,” Smart said of Berisha’s homer. “That was something that sparked us because it was finally that timely hit. Finally that hit where they weren’t.”
Kearny’s other big slugger is junior William McChesney at first base. While McChesney has struggled early on, he proved himself to be one of Hudson County’s better sluggers after hitting four home runs as a sophomore.
“We’re waiting for that to happen this year,” said Smart. “He’s one of our main guys that we look for to come up with that big at-bat to drive that run in and make things happen. He’s also a solid first baseman and one of our main arms.”
Junior Trayton Witt starts at second base and senior Jayden Casanova is the starting third baseman for Kearny.
At shortstop has been one of the biggest surprises in senior Lucas Perez, who has taken the starting spot after missing all, but one game last year due a hamstring injury. Perez has made his presence felt on the bases, stealing four through the first three weeks.
“He’s just a prime example of hard work,” Smart said. “He busted his butt in the offseason and he came back. He really put smiles on our faces because he came in, he wanted that position, and he took it.”
Perez is hardly the only accomplished base-stealer in the Kearny lineup. Leading off is center fielder Bryan Diaz. The three-year starter has been the ideal table-setter for Kearny, leading the team in hits (11), runs (eight) and stolen bases (eight).
“He’s another guy that can move and he’s really come alive,” said Smart. “He’s another hard worker, he worked hard this offseason getting himself set and ready to play and he really has had a big impact in that leadoff spot for us.”
Senior left fielder Joey Rocco follows in the No. 2 spot, where he’s got six runs, three stolen bases and a team-high three doubles.
Sophomore Jayden Diaz and senior Kyle Raefski share right field. Catcher is another spot where the Kardinals have split responsibilities with junior Victor Hansen getting the majority of the time and junior Joel Jimenez serving as a more than capable backup.
Sophomore Luis Rodriguez and senior Elier Jimenez give Kearny some versatility off the bench, while sophomore Jonah Menendez is a promising power bat.
On the mound, senior Joseph Drefko may not have overpowering stuff, but has been the Kardinals’ go-to guy for the past two seasons due his control and poise out there.McChesney and Rocco are the two other rotation mainstays for Kearny
Rodriguez and Raefski are two arms that, while used mainly out of the pen, are capable of going multiple innings or making a spot start like Rodriguez did against Newark East Side.
Diaz, who picked up the win in relief after allowing just one run in three innings on Saturday is a promising arm poised for more time on the mound as well as Jimenez, who played a key role in the April 7 win over Union City.
Kearny looked to build upon Saturday’s win on Monday when it went to Union City for a game after publication deadline. The Kardinals follow with division contests at North Bergen and Bayonne before playing Dickinson on Saturday in West New York as part of the Hudson/Essex Challenge to Cure Alzheimer’s
“If we can come back and we can put together another win or two, I think they can definitely build that confidence back up and say that we can still put something together here,” Smart said. “We can still make a run at something.”
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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.)