American Legion baseball returns to Kearny

Once a staple of summer, American Legion Baseball has largely gone away in several parts of New Jersey as years have gone on and a greater emphasis has been placed on travel ball and other sports.

One place where American Legion has made a comeback however is in Kearny. For the first time in more than a decade Kearny, under the sponsorship of Kearny Legion Post 99, has a team in American Legion.

This summer the  Kearny Rangers are in the Bergen County American Legion League, a nine-team league, which includes Lyndhurst Post 139 and schools from all over Hudson, Passaic and the southern part of Bergen County.

“I remember the American Legion from growing up in Harrison. We had it and then after moving to Kearny, I remember them being involved,” said Kearny Rangers head coach Armando Diaz, recalling hearing about the opportunity to join the league from a friend, who coaches at North Bergen. “We went to the first meeting and we found out what’s needed to participate and we realized we could do this.”

The lone requirement that Diaz was unsure of was the part that the majority of the players had to be from the town of the sponsoring post.

In total, 11 of the 18 players on the Kearny Rangers live in Kearny, the rest of the roster is filled out with kids primarily from Newark, but also neighboring Harrison, North Arlington and Belleville.

Heading into the final week of the regular season, Kearny has gone 8-5-1 as the league has provided Diaz and the Rangers just what they were hoping for – a summer baseball option that is both competitive and affordable for their players.

“I wasn’t sure what it was about in terms of how big the league was. I hadn’t really looked into it or heard much about it because Kearny hadn’t been involved for so long,” said Diaz, who noted that after some fundraising efforts, the cost per player is $250 for the season with uniforms, a fraction of the cost of other travel teams. “The competition for the most part has been very, very competitive.”

Leading the way for the Rangers, both at the plate and on the mound, has been Eli Jablonski, a Kearny native and St. Peter’s Prep graduate. Jablonski leads the team in hitting at .448 with 11 RBI while also leading the team with 22 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings while posting a sparkling 1.72 ERA.

Jablonski, who plays right field when he’s not on the mound, is joined in the outfield by another St. Peter’s Prep teammate Nico Duarte. Duarte, a Kearny native, is better known for his work with the Marauders’ football team, but was able to play one last summer of baseball before heading to Sacred Heart University where he will be a kicker and punter.

Duarte is hitting .375, but has been even more valuable as a source of leadership.

“He came on like a week or two before we started and we lucked out because he’s been there nearly the whole time,” Diaz said. “He’s a really good leader. He’s definitely been a good guy to lean on.”

Diaz’s older son, Bryan Diaz, is the starting center fielder and has a team-best 16 stolen bases to go with a .333 average. The Kearny graduate will look to make the baseball team at Kean University this fall.

Younger brother Jayden, a rising junior, starts in right field when Jablonski is on the mound, but can play all over the outfield as well as Aaron Nieves, a Newark Tech graduate.

Splitting the duties at catcher are Kearny graduate Rexhep Berisha, Alam Lopez (Barringer) and Sebastian Santana, a rising ninth-grader expected to attend St. Mary’s of Rutherford.

The versatile Berisha is also in the mix at first base along with Kearny’s William McChesney and Jonah Menendez as well as Landon Pinho, a Kearny native who plays at St. Peter’s Prep.

Marcos Atehortua, a rising sophomore at Belleville splits second base with North Arlington graduate Angel Elliott.

Atehortua, Kearny graduate Lucas Perez and Barringer’s Legend Anderson share responsibilities at shortstop. Edwin Olaya of Newark Tech and Harrison’s Carlos Estrada split time at third base.

Headlining the pitching staff has been Kearny graduate Joseph Drefko. Drefko, who served as the Kardinals’ ace during the spring has two wins and 15 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings.

Nieves, who has 19 strikeouts and a 0.66 ERA in 13 2/3 innings, and Jayden Diaz (1.00 ERA and eight strikeouts in nine innings) have been the other primary pitchers behind Drefko and Jablonski.

For most of the players, this American Legion season will be the last time they will play competitive baseball.

“It’s one last hurrah for some of these guys,” Diaz said. “Some of them will continue to keep playing, who knows what the other will do, but it’s good to see them go on out on the kind of high note they didn’t get during the high school 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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)