For the last two high school baseball seasons, Union City High School has been one of the premier programs in Hudson County.
In fact, the Soaring Eagles have won more than 20 games both years and captured the regular season championship of the Hudson County Interscholastic League both times.
However, after all that success, the Soaring Eagles have really nothing to show for it.
A year ago, they lost to North Bergen in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals and fell to Morris Knolls in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship game.
“Although we play well in the regular season, we came up short in the county and state playoffs,” said Union City head coach Chipper Benway. “I think we felt a little pressure last year, having a talented group and expecting more of the same that we did the year before. We played well and our regular season record proves it. We just need to win at playoff time. We had good regular seasons and had the hiccups in the playoffs. We need to be better in late May than we are in April.”
Achieving that and duplicating last year’s 22-8 record won’t be easy this season, because the Soaring Eagles were devastated by graduation – much like a lot of other Hudson County teams.
“We graduated 10 players and it’s never easy to replace 10 in one shot,” Benway said. “But we have some talented kids who want to get better. I can’t sense that we will be better, but we have some talented kids in some spots. If they don’t produce like I think they can, then we’re in trouble.”
Benway hopes and prays that his team can develop as the season moves on.
“I don’t know right now if we’re going to be in the thick of it,” Benway said. “I can only hope that this team comes along and we can compete with the rest of the county. Where it leaves us right now remains to be seen.”
Senior Sayvon Williams returns for another season. The experienced right-hander posted a 5-1 record last year and looks poised to emerge as the Soaring Eagles’ premier pitcher.
“He’s locating his spots well and is throwing down in the zone, which is a good sign,” Benway said. “Sayvon throws strikes and relies on his defense to make plays behind him.”
Senior left-hander Darwin Ortiz also returns. Ortiz has all the makings to become a dominant hurler, especially from the left side.
“I expect Ortiz to continue to do what he’s done in the past,” Benway said.
Williams and Ortiz provide the Soaring Eagles with a solid 1-2 righty-lefty pitching punch.
Junior Jose Taveras has been a pleasant surprise. The right-hander “pounds the strike zone,” according to Benway.
“We have three pretty solid pitchers,” Benway said. “It’s a good place to start.”
Junior Harold Maria is the team’s new starting catcher, replacing Daniel Lopez, who is currently playing at Rutgers-Newark.
“He’s doing a good job and he’s holding his own back there,” Benway said of Maria.
First base duties are being shared by Ortiz, when he’s not pitching, and junior Sergio Delgado, who has deceptive power in his bat.
Javier Estevez is a three-year starter at second base.
“He’s very reliable and has a good glove,” Benway said of Estevez.
Senior Robert Herrera is the team’s shortstop. He’s also returning for his third year on the Soaring Eagles’ varsity squad. Benway likes what Herrera adds to the team.
“He has a chance to be a very good one,” Benway said. “We go as he goes.”
Taveras is the team’s third baseman. When he’s on the mound, junior Carlos Olivo takes over the hot corner.
Senior Steven Gonzalez is the starting left fielder. Gonzalez is playing varsity for the first time.
The rest of the outfield is interchangeable. Football standout Steve Le has decided to come out for baseball for the first time and his athleticism and speed is a plus in the outfield. Le is a senior who was just recently selected to participate in the state football North-South All-Star classic.
“He’s definitely going to help us,” Benway said.
The other outfielders are seniors Antonio Pacheco and Joel Abreu and promising sophomore Kevin Perez. Benway will be moving all of the outfielders in and out throughout the course of the season.
Benway knows that his team is still a work in progress.
“It may take us a while to get going,” Benway said. “We may take our lumps early. We have to find out what we’re made of. But if we can handle the tough times and stay together, I think we can make a run at the end. The question is: Will we still be around to make a difference and be in a winning position at the end? I don’t know.”
Knowing Benway and his competitive spirit, the chances look good for the Soaring Eagles to be a gritty competitor in 2012, much like the personality of their head coach.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.