A year ago, the Marist High School baseball team was the feel-good surprise story of the entire season. The Royal Knights not only shocked everyone by capturing the Hudson County Tournament championship, but they also added the overall Non-Public B state championship for good measure.
Now, there’s no happy-go-lucky, root for the underdog feel about the Royal Knights. They’re the hunted this year. They’re the team that everyone is shooting for. They should begin the 2013 season ranked among the very best teams in New Jersey – and deservedly so.
Last season, everyone was patting head coach Ron Hayward on the back and offering him congratulations. Now, this time around, all opponents want to take him down a notch.
“I think we’ve earned that kind of respect,” said Hayward, a former All-State player at Marist who is remarkably in his eighth season as the head coach at his alma mater. He’s now also added the title of athletic director to his impressive resume.
“I love the fact that we’re respected now,” said Hayward, the 2012 Hudson Reporter Coach of the Year who guided the Royal Knights to a 24-5 record last season. “Personally, I don’t mind the favorite role. I think the kids enjoy it as well. In years past, I would be stressing about whether we would get five wins. Now, we are enjoying the respect.”
Knowing that he had another formidable team, Hayward scheduled some tough scrimmages against Bergen Catholic, Montclair and Rutgers Prep, good programs each and every one.
“I said to the kids that those teams aren’t better than us, but this gives us a chance to face some of the top teams in the state,” Hayward said. “Our independent schedule this year is also tough. So I said to them, ‘Let’s demonstrate that we are better and that we want to be better.’ The kids have worked hard, putting the time in. So we definitely want the respect.”
The Royal Knights lost some key components to last year’s championship club, like Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Mark Peralta, All-Area third baseman Dan Mirabel and standout outfielder Derek Edge.
But the Royal Knights have brought in a cluster of talented freshmen who are going to make an impact right away, prospects that Hayward think are going to be stars.
“These kids played summer ball and fall ball,” Hayward said. “I think our infield is actually better than last year. They’re more athletic. The new kids can all play.”
One player that Hayward doesn’t have to worry about is junior right-handed pitcher Matt Littrell, who if it weren’t for the brilliant Kenny Roder of Hoboken would have been the top pitcher in the county last year.
Littrell posted an 8-1 record last year with an ERA under one and more strikeouts than can be recorded.
“He works too hard not to be better than he was last year,” Hayward said. “He hits his spots well and throws 85 [miles per hour]. He knows that he’s the main man, but he also has two guys right on top of him.”
Junior left-hander Joshua Witherspoon is another Royal Knight hurler with tremendous promise.
“He has all the tools,” Hayward said of Witherspoon, who won two games last season. “He’s 6-foot-3, a big boy. He throws hard. He’s a next level kid.”
The other pitcher to watch is freshman righty A.J. Candelaria.
“He’s a stud,” Hayward said. “He has tremendous velocity on his fastball. He reminds me of Fabian Roman. He even looks like him.”
Roman was the 2009 Hudson Reporter Pitcher of the Year before getting drafted by the Kansas City Royals. He’s currently playing college baseball at Northwestern State University.
Hayward has other pitchers he can count on, like right-hander Aaron Smith, the standout quarterback on the football team that made the state playoffs; senior DeVohn Duncan, whose father, also named DeVohn, was a great pitcher at Marist and was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the early 1990s, senior Dionny Morales and junior Angel Perez, who is the R.A. Dickey of Hudson County, because he throws a knuckleball.
“His knuckleball is nasty,” Hayward said.
The catchers are among that talented freshman crop, namely Kevin Reynoso and Brandon Hansen. Hayward has known both since they were 12-year-old prospects.
Witherspoon might see time at first when not pitching, but there’s another freshman there in Jesse Matos, who Hayward likes.
“He’s a big kid and the real deal,” Hayward said of Matos. “He's going to be a big-time player. He can hit the ball.”
Smith will play second base, along with freshman Mike Cristopolous. Morales, a transfer from St. Anthony, will be at shortstop, with junior Elijah Hernandez at third base.
Senior Andre Santana, who started last year, will be in left field. Perez, who started for the last three years, is in centerfield, with Witherspoon and Smith sharing time in right. Smith can also catch, so he’s a valuable commodity.
Senior Kwame Williams is a key reserve who can play in the outfield.
The Royal Knights get thrown right into the fire, facing fellow Hudson County contender St. Peter’s Prep in the season opener April 2.
“I love this,” Hayward said. “I don’t think anyone is bothered by being the favorite. This team makes me feel more confident than last year. I never had so many kids who can play as well as this group can. It’s definitely a challenge.”
And one that will continue right on until the first week of June. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.