Ray Coccioli sort of just stumbled into the best year of his coaching life, with every step of the journey simply getting better and better.
A year ago, Coccioli was an assistant to Jim Tricarico with the Union City High School softball program. Tricarico was a fixture in Union City coaching circles, first as the highly successful baseball coach at Emerson High School, then later as the softball coach at Emerson and then Union City after the school merger took place.
“I learned a lot from Jim in my two years working with him,” Coccioli said. “I learned about discipline and doing things the right way. I learned about the game from him. It was a huge benefit to have him.”
Last September, right before the school year was set to begin, Tricarico announced that he was retiring. He recommended to Union City school officials that Coccioli would be the right choice to replace him as softball coach.
“I was very fortunate that he recommended me,” Coccioli said. “I think I was prepared to take over.”
At the same time, Coccioli learned of all the turmoil involving the dissolving of the athletic programs at County Prep and High Tech. The end of those two schools’ athletic programs meant that the Union City softball team was about to instantly improve by leaps and bounds.
It meant that Amanda Casillas, a proven infielder at County Prep, and two mainstays of the High Tech team that won the county title last year, namely Angelique Nieves and Jovanique Meneses, were going to be members of the Soaring Eagles team that Coccioli was inheriting.
“Words can’t describe how much that meant to us,” Coccioli said.
Especially gaining the talents of Nieves, who is a two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree and perhaps the best all-around softball player in the county.
Nieves has been gaining attention since she was a dominant player in the North Bergen Little League, taking on the boys in the process. She was a main reason why the High Tech program was so successful in recent years and she’s already signed on to play softball at Iona College on a scholarship in the fall.
“It’s absolutely been a blessing to have Angie,” Coccioli said. “She’s definitely one of the top players in the county. She does everything for us. She’s very disciplined at the plate and she’s a very clutch hitter.”
Nieves is now playing shortstop for the Soaring Eagles, after being a fixture at third base at High Tech. But she hasn’t missed a beat, batting better than .500 so far. In a recent win over Kearny, Nieves went 5-for-5 in the game with two triples and two RBI. Nieves added four hits and two RBI in a huge 9-8 win over rival Hoboken Tuesday afternoon.
Meneses earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors last year as a sophomore. She was named as the top designated hitter on that All-Area team, but now plays first base for the Soaring Eagles.
“She’s doing very well at first,” Coccioli said. “The best thing about her is her strength on the base paths. She knows what to do when she’s running the bases.”
Nieves and Meneses still attend High Tech, but are able to play for Union City because it is their home district. Casillas moved to Union City in the off-season with her family.
Casillas is now starting at third base for the Soaring Eagles and has provided strong leadership and defense there. Casillas added two hits and two RBI in the win over Hoboken.
“There’s no question we wouldn’t be in the same position if not for those three newcomers,” Coccioli said.
The combination of the new head coach and three new players has catapulted the Soaring Eagles to new heights. They currently own a 6-2 record after the win over Hoboken and have to be considered the main threat to state-ranked North Bergen in the Hudson County tournament sweepstakes.
The Soaring Eagles’ pitcher is sophomore Melissa Mendoza. She was a pitcher for the Union City junior varsity squad last year, but has developed into a solid hurler and mainstay on the mound this year.
“She’s been doing pretty well, especially when her command is on point,” Coccioli said. “If she’s on, it all comes down to her.”
The catcher is freshman Shalia Rolon, who has done a remarkable job behind the plate as a rookie.
“She’s a very good athlete and she has a way about her behind the plate,” Coccioli said. “No question, catcher is one of the most important positions. We didn’t have to force a girl to go back there. Shalia wanted it and she’s worthy of it.”
Meneses is at first, with sophomore Adriana Liverman at second base. Liverman started at shortstop last year for the Soaring Eagles, but moved over to make way for Nieves.
Nieves and Casillas comprise a solid left side of the infield.
Senior Angie Estrada is the starting left fielder. A standout for the Union City basketball team, Estrada didn’t play softball last season, but has returned this spring and is the team’s leadoff hitter.
Junior Jessica Diaz is the centerfielder and sophomore Michelle Ruiz is the right fielder. Both started at those positions last year. Senior Jessica Parra, another returning starter, is team’s designated player.
With their 6-2 record and wins over some of the elite in the county, the Soaring Eagles are right there in contention. North Bergen is definitely the cream of the crop, but who knows?
“We know that we can definitely compete with anyone,” Coccioli said. “We lost once to North Bergen, but that was 5-4 and it was earlier in the season. We definitely have a shot.”
Not bad for a first-year head coach, getting plopped right into the middle of a contending team.
“It’s been great,” Coccioli said. “It’s been a lot more work than anticipated, but we’re having a lot of fun. It’s a good time and it’s been a good experience.”
Winning, of course, helps. So does having three quality additions.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
Jim’s blog can also be found at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.