Wendell Rodriguez had a brilliant high school baseball career at County Prep, leading the now-defunct baseball program to an HCIAA championship.
However, after he graduated from County Prep, Rodriguez pursued a dream and went to play baseball in his native Puerto Rico.
“I went to Puerto Rico for three months, then came back to Jersey City,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that I wanted to go to college.”
So Rodriguez enrolled at nearby New Jersey City University, where some of his friends and former teammates were attending, some even playing baseball.
“I knew the program was going in the right direction,” Rodriguez said. “We weren’t the best team, but I knew we would work hard and play hard, that those fundamentals would go a long way.”
Michael Martucci graduated from St. Peter’s Prep a few years ago and had a scholarship to play baseball at St. Peter’s University.
But that move didn’t work, so Martucci joined Rodriguez at NJCU.
“When I first went to NJCU, I only knew a few guys, but I knew that a lot of the guys on the team were like me from Hudson County,” said Martucci, a Jersey City native who now resides in Bayonne. “We all played against each other and played well with each other. I think it was pretty cool that we could put it all together.”
Rodriguez and Martucci are just two players on the Gothic Knights’ roster who were former Hudson County high school standouts. Both were Hudson Reporter All-Area selections during their high school days.
Other former All-Area honorees now at NJCU include former Ferris standout Jomar Casiano, former St. Mary’s, then Marist standout Dan Mirabel and former Hoboken standout Zack Markle.
Other locals on the Gothic Knights’ roster include James Gardner of Hoboken and St. Peter’s Prep, Rob Roman of Hoboken and St. Joseph of the Palisades and Pedro Garcia of North Bergen and St. Joseph of the Palisades.
It’s part of a plan that second-year head coach Jerry Smith has in building the Gothic Knights’ program toward respectability.
“There’s a lot of untapped talent in Hudson County,” Smith said. “We see a lot of the local kids leave and go elsewhere, but then things don’t work out and they come home. If we can find a way to keep them home, that would be great. They’re all good kids with excellent work ethic.”
Rodriguez, a senior, is one of those with the impeccable drive. Not only does he attend school full-time, but he also works for Federal Express (FedEx).
“I’ve been working since my freshman year,” said Rodriguez. “I’m able to work my work schedule around school. It’s definitely tough, with work, school and baseball. But it’s been worth it, because I’ve enjoyed it.”
Rodriguez is working toward his degree in accounting. He’s also left his mark at NJCU, because earlier this year, he defeated Rutgers-Camden to win his 13th career game, becoming the school’s all-time win leader, breaking a record that stood since 1986.
“I never expected all of this,” Rodriguez said. “I remember my father telling me that getting a degree was important, because even if you didn’t get anything out of baseball, at least I had a degree. Well, being at NJCU has been great and to come away with the all-time win record is a great thing to have.”
Since Rodriguez won his 13th game, he went on to win twice more to increase the all-time mark to 15. Rodriguez had a 5-5 record with a 5.15 ERA this season.
“I’m definitely proud of it all,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t expect to do as well as I did. I loved it. I’m proud to say I played for the Gothic Knights, just like I’m proud to say I played for the Hurricanes [County Prep’s nickname].”
The Gothic Knights won 17 games this season, including wins over Ramapo, ranked No. 19 in the nation among NCAA Division III schools, and the big one, an upset over the nation’s top-ranked team, Kean.
“We also won against other teams in our conference, like William Paterson and Rutgers-Camden,” Smith said. “It definitely helped to put us on the map. It serves notice that we can do it here if we do things the right way. The kids are also starting to believe.”
Smith also scheduled the season finale against Stevens Tech in Hoboken.
“I want to be able to create a tradition and have that as our last game, making it a little bit of a local rivalry,” Smith said. “The two schools have a general proximity and we’re both very competitive.”
Casiano, a freshman, made his mark as a pitcher, posting a 3-3 record with a 4.30 ERA.
“Jomar became a big conference pitcher for us,” said Smith of Casiano, who also played a little in the outfield.
Roman, a junior, played second base and batted .253 with five RBI. Markle, a junior pitcher, saw action in 11 games with a 1-1 record and a 3.82 ERA. Garcia, a left-handed reliever and a junior, was a workhorse in the bullpen, seeing action in 22 games and posting a 1-0 record with a 4.04 ERA. Gardner, a freshman catcher, saw limited action.
Martucci, a sophomore, started the year as the Gothic Knights’ starting shortstop, but moved to third base and handled the shift with ease.
“I actually like playing third, although I never did it before,” Martucci said. “I can play anywhere. I might try to play the outfield next year. A lot of third base came to me instinctively, because I’ve been an infielder.”
Martucci batted .275 with a homer and 20 RBI. Smith believes his best baseball is ahead of him.
“He has the chance to be an all-conference [New Jersey Athletic Conference] player next year,” Smith said of Martucci.
Smith said that he’s worked hard to establish working relationships with the Hudson County high school coaches.
“Without a doubt, the coaches have been very helpful to me,” Smith said. “I’ve been getting out to games, meeting with the coaches and the players. That’s going to help me in the long run.”
Smith said that Bayonne head coach Phil Baccarella has been especially helpful to his program.
“It’s a close-knit coaching community,” Smith said. “I’m glad to have those guys in my corner.”
Martucci is excited about what the future holds for the Gothic Knights.
“We lose five seniors, but most of the team comes back,” Martucci said. “We’re going to have a really strong team next year. We’ve let everyone know that we’re not a joke anymore. We’re for real.”
Rodriguez leaves as the all-time win leader. He also knows he made an impact.
“I’m glad to have had the chance to play here,” Rodriguez said.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” said Smith, who won 13 games in his first year last year. “I’m comfortable with the kids we have.”
Hudson County kids playing baseball in Hudson County – something that has a nice ring to it.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.