Union City High School baseball coach Chipper Benway makes no bones about what he wants from his program this season, a year after winning 22 games and winning the regular season Hudson County Interscholastic League title.
“I don’t think Union City is thought of as one of the better programs in the county,” said Benway, who earned the 2010 Hudson Reporter Coach of the Year for guiding the Soaring Eagles to their best season to date a year ago. “With a fresh start and a fresh mentality, we wanted to prove that we could win here and we did last year. But it should come as no surprise. We want to have a winning program day in and day out. We want to be there with the teams that are mentioned every year as the best in the county, like St. Peter’s Prep, Memorial and Bayonne.”
Added Benway, “We feel like we do belong with those teams. My kids expect to be there throughout the season. We are good enough. We have to join that club and to be a member of that club, you have to win year in and year out.”
So Benway doesn’t want to have people think that the Soaring Eagles were a fly-by-night, one-hit wonder type of a team last year.
“We want to establish something that is kept every year,” said Benway, who took over the program last year after Frank Clark resigned to take an administrative position in another district. “We hope combining the two schools [Emerson and Union Hill, where Benway was the head coach] can lead to some big things with our baseball program.”
The Soaring Eagles should contend once again for top honors in the county, as well as in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV bracket. They have a solid pitching staff, but more importantly, they have some strong senior leaders who have been part of the program for a while now. That leadership should go a long way in carrying the Soaring Eagles through what appears to be a tough schedule.
Leading the way for the Eagles is senior pitcher/first baseman Jose Matias, the brother of Josue, who is headed to Florida State on a football scholarship.
Matias, who has spent the last three years with the Union City varsity, pitched the Soaring Eagles to their win over Emerson Borough last weekend. He’s also one of the better hitters around.
“He looked real good in the preseason scrimmages and pitched well in his first start,” Benway said. “The only kink in our armor is that we really don’t have a dominant ace for a starter. We have a bunch of good pitchers, good depth, but we don’t have a dominant ace. Jose looks good so far. We’ll see what he can do. But I like the depth we have in our rotation.”
Senior left-hander Joe Fernandez is another solid starter. Senior Ray Cassens is another quality arm and a diversified player on a team with versatility throughout the lineup.
The key to the pitching staff just might be senior left-hander Antonio Borges, who served as the team’s closer last year, recording six saves. Borges was asked to take a step up and become a starter this year, but had some control issues in the preseason.
“He’s definitely going to be there in the end,” Benway said.
Borges is definitely a pitcher to watch.
Senior Danny Lopez is another returning veteran and three-year player. The sure-handed Lopez was the Soaring Eagles’ starter behind the plate last year and he’s getting some looks from some local colleges.
First base duties are being shared by Matias and another three-year starter in Willy Taveras, who can be used all over the diamond.
Junior Javier Estevez is the starting second baseman. Taveras plays shortstop, but so does junior Robert Herrera, giving the Soaring Eagles some strength up the middle.
Third base is handled by junior Edwin Herrera.
Cassens is in left field, but he’s joined there by senior Eloy Dominguez. Borges returns to the centerfield role he owned last season. He’s a fleet-footed outfielder who covers a lot of ground. Senior Yeudy Ventura, who started off last season with an unbelievable run, batting better than .700 over the first three weeks of the campaign, returns to his right field slot.
The ingredients are definitely there for Benway and the Soaring Eagles to contend, especially since the Hudson County baseball race appears wide open with no clear-cut favorite.
“Winning has always been a part of my personality,” said Benway, who was a standout two-sport athlete at Hoboken during his playing days and has coached football and baseball throughout the county. “I’ve won my fair share of championships over the years. I don’t know if I’m the best coach around, but I do expect success, because that’s what I’ve had my entire life. I expect this team to be competing all year and hopefully, we’re playing for a championship on the last Saturday in May.”
If the pitching holds up and Borges emerges as an ace, then the Soaring Eagles are right there in the mix for a county title. It won’t come as a surprise this year and it’s something that Benway hopes is never a surprise ever again.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com