Despite its struggles the past two seasons, Javier Cruz knew that North Arlington Little League could do big things on the All Stars level if it could get all of the town’s top baseball talent to play together.
“I’ve been trying to put this team together for two, three years now and it was so hard to get them to play all-stars because a lot of them chose not to play little league and played travel ball instead,” said Cruz, who is the head coach of North Arlington’s Little League Team as well as president of the league. “A lot of them play for tournament teams, Perfect Game tournaments etc. so they didn’t really want to play Little League and sacrifice time from the travel teams.
“I knew we had the talent and if it came together, I knew we had a shot. I didn’t know how far we could go, but I knew that we had a good shot if we all came together as a team as one, if all the parents came together, had one mind and one goal to play together and be together, then the sky was the limit.”
This past weekend in Rutherford, those expectations became a reality when North Arlington defeated Wood-Ridge, 7-5, on Thursday night, then downed Wood-Ridge again on Saturday, 11-1, to win the New Jersey District 5 Little League championship.
It is North Arlington’s first District 5 title since 1965 and they did it in dominating fashion. Prior to the best-of-3 championship against Wood-Ridge, North Arlington went 4-0 in pool play. Overall, it went 6-0 and outscored the opposition by an overwhelming 46-8 margin.
Next up for North Arlington is the Region 2 Tournament in Fort Lee, which begins on Saturday at 4 p.m. against Fort Lee, the District 6 champion.
“These boys really wanted it, they had a chip on their shoulders and I can’t be more proud of them,” said Cruz, who grew up and played at Belleville before moving with his family to North Arlington more than seven years ago. “They really stepped up to the plate and did what they had to do… it was just a great moment for everyone.”
Leading the way for North Arlington has been shortstop/pitcher Noah Vargas. In Thursday’s opener with North Arlington trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the fourth, Vargas launched a grand slam to put his team ahead for good as they earned the 7-5 victory and Vargas was the winning pitcher.
“He’s a great player in multiple sports. Basketball, baseball, football, he’s just a true all-around athlete and a great player,” Cruz said. “He’s just an excellent player, he’s the heart and soul of our team. I don’t see many players better than him anywhere around here. Anywhere he goes, he stands out.”
Two days later, it was North Arlington’s other ace, Maverick Michalski’s turn to dominate. Michalski, who threw a perfect game during pool play, tossed a two-hitter in the title game and according to Cruz has “been probably our most productive hitter,” during this run.
“He’s our 1A as a pitcher because he’s an excellent pitcher as well,” said Cruz. “When he’s not pitching, he plays the outfield as well.”
In addition to Vargas and Michalski, Javier Cruz Jr., Michael Faulk, Joshua Figueroa and Owen Alvarez have provided valuable contributions on the mound.
Figueroa, a three-year player in the program, has been a breakout player this spring following a growth spurt. He starts at catcher and hits cleanup.
Another veteran of the program is first baseman Jayden Beauchene.
Cruz Jr., the son of the head coach, is the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter as he has more than held his own against the older competition.
“He’s one of our youngest players, but he does whatever it takes,” said Cruz, about his son, who is 11.”He’s trying his hardest to compete with these older boys and he’s been doing really well.”
Vargas is the main shortstop with Faulk taking over at short when Vargas is pitching.
At third base is Alvarez, who is one of the guys who had elected to play travel ball over little league before this year.
Said Cruz, “he has a great glove, he hits the ball well and he’s just a very consistent player for us at the hot corner.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of North Arlington’s two wins over Wood-Ridge this past week was that it was accomplished without two of its mainstays in the outfield. Braden Duffy, the team’s regular center fielder was sidelined due to illness and corner outfielder Ricky Lopes was also unavailable this past weekend.
In Duffy’s place in center was Jacob Castillo, who moved to North Arlington from Kearny last year and is Cruz’s most versatile player.
“He’s one of those utility guys who can play every position,” Diaz said. “We can plug him in anywhere and not have to worry about him.”
Cesar Echavarria started in left field and Jayven Guzman started in right field.
“We’re getting hot at the right moment,” Cruz said. “All of our boys are doing a great job hitting the ball at the moment.”
Joining Cruz on the coaching staff are assistants Ed Duffy, Bill Alvarez and Richie Vargas.
The Region 2 tournament features North Arlington, Fort Lee, Elmora Little League out of Elizabeth and Montclair.
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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.)