Tom Eagleson, the granddaddy of all Hudson County softball coaches, has been around coaching at North Bergen High School for 30 seasons and 567 victories.
That’s not just a career. That’s a legacy.
It’s legitimately a good 15 years and 400 victories better than anyone else in the county. That’s the ledger of success Eagleson has carved over the last three decades. It’s downright astounding.
“I love doing it,” Eagleson said. “I have good assistant coaches and I’ve been grooming others to take my place, because I don’t know how long I can continue to do it. But having young kids keep me going.”
The 2014 high school season may represent the biggest challenge in Eagleson’s career. North Bergen graduated 10 seniors from the team that won 22 games a year ago, including two-time Hudson Reporter Pitcher of the Year Jessica Feria, now pitching at Mercy College in New York.
“I only have two returning starters from last year and both are at different positions,” Eagleson said.
One of those returning players is senior Alize Sarmiento, who played second base the last two seasons and now moves to shortstop.
However, Sarmiento sprained her ankle in one of the first games of the season and has now headed to the sidelines for at least another week, replaced by freshman Marilyn Rodriguez, who was the right fielder.
Sophomore Victoria Avella, who was the starting right fielder last year, moves to the mound to replace Feria.
“She’s done real well,” Eagleson said. “She did pitch a couple games last year when Jess was hurt. I knew she’d be OK. I didn’t know she would be this dominant. She throws it very hard.”
Over the last two games, Avella struck out 19 batters.
“I have no worries there,” Eagleson said. “She can pitch every day.”
But this is definitely a team in transition, yet the Bruins are expected once again to contend for HCIAL and the Hudson County Tournament championships.
“I think what’s different is that we really don’t have a superstar to depend on,” Eagleson said. “We have a very young team. The amazing thing is that everyone on the team is about equal in talent. No one has stood out yet. There’s a sense of parity without one superstar. I have no fear of putting anyone in the lineup and seeing them do well.”
The Bruins improved to 3-1 with a 15-3 win over Bayonne on Wednesday. They’ve only played four games and had an astounding nine scrimmages wiped out because of the weather.
“So we’re learning as we go along,” Eagleson said.
The catching duties are being shared by senior Cristina Otero and freshman Elisa Lopez.
The same is taking place at first base, where senior Vunia Fernandez and sophomore Jessica Castro are battling for playing time.
“We really don’t have a set lineup yet,” Eagleson said. “Every day, it’s something different.”
The second baseman is also new with definitely a new concept.
Jaila Grimes is the Bruins’ every day starter at second. She’s also an eighth grader.
Because Grimes is older than most in her school classification, she would use all of her high school eligibility before she was a senior. This way, Grimes can begin her high school career before she attends high school.
“She’s our cleanup hitter,” Eagleson said of Grimes, who had three hits, including two triples, and two RBI in the win over Bayonne. “She’s hit the ball very well and she’s done very well defensively.”
Third base is another position that is being shared by two players, namely junior Amber Antigua and sophomore Melanie Luna. Both were on the junior varsity level last year.
Senior Amanda Cabrera, a little-used reserve last year, is the starter this year in left field.
Junior Jaylene Grimes, the older sister of Jaila, is the centerfielder.
“She’s very good defensively in centerfield,” Eagleson said. “She’s been showing a lot of power of late.”
Senior Jessica Godoy, a reserve for the last three years, gets a chance to play every day in right field.
Junior Xiomara Taylor is the Bruins’ designated hitter. Taylor had four hits and two RBI in the win over Bayonne Wednesday.
“She bats No. 2 in our lineup,” Eagleson said. “I’ve never had to do this before, make so many changes all the time. But the kids are not making many mental mistakes. I thought we might with a younger team, but that’s not the case. Even with all the scrimmages we lost to the weather, they’ve handled themselves pretty well. Just getting on the field has been tough, but once they get on the field, they really know what they’re doing.”
Eagleson said that there has been no hangover from last year’s late-season collapse, which saw the Bruins lose to Secaucus in the Hudson County Tournament finale, then make a quick exit in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs.
“Once that year was over, it was over,” Eagleson said. “I really like the energy of this year’s team because there are so many young kids. I’m doing a lot more teaching this year, which is nice. The kids are very receptive and they’re listening.”
For thirty springs, Eagleson has been drilling his knowledge into the Bruins. He’s had the blessing to have some brilliant pitchers in the past and this year seems to be no exception. Avella seems to be the real deal.
“It’s pretty remarkable I’ve been around so long,” Eagleson said. “I’m just fortunate to have had some good players and teams.”
And despite the massive turnaround, the Bruins will be right there at the season’s end, contending for yet another county championship. Count on that.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.