Danny Marroquin knows a little bit about Memorial High School’s rich and storied baseball tradition.
After all, Marroquin was once a standout pitcher right smack in the middle of the Tigers’ glory days, when winning 20 games was an annual given and when competing for both the NJSIAA Group IV and Hudson County championships were a rite of passage.
The Tigers once won 14 HCIAA championships, seven NJSIAA state sectional titles, four overall Group IV titles and in 1988, one mythical national championship. It’s a ledger of greatness no other Hudson County baseball program has ever produced.
So when Marroquin was elevated two years ago to the position of head coach, replacing the legendary Tony Ferrainolo, who died in October of 2011 as the state’s all-time leader in coaching victories with 754 wins, he knew that he had a lot on his plate. It’s never easy replacing a larger-than-life legend, especially after he passes away.
Marroquin had to endure some growing pains as a head coach, so that’s what the 2012 season represented. It was a learning experience for the young coach, who almost got swallowed up by the idea he was replacing West New York’s all-time baseball hero, the man who the field at Miller Stadium was named after, while trying to keep the Tigers’ competitive spirit intact.
Some might have believed that the 2013 season might be different for Marroquin, but as the season began, it got worse.
The Tigers lost six straight games after winning their first two. They then dropped to 3-9.
“We weren’t catching the breaks,” Marroquin said. “We lost some tough games. They say it’s better to be lucky than to have no luck at all. Well, we had no luck at all. We couldn’t come up with a timely hit when we needed it. We were getting pounded by some good teams. I thought we had the talent to turn things around this year, but at 3-9, I didn’t know what to do.”
At that point, Marroquin finally felt the true pressure of being the head coach at Memorial.
“I know what its like,” Marroquin said. “I played here. I coached here. I had been through some rough patches, but we never lost 10 games in a season, not as far as I can remember. We always played in the state tournament. At 3-9, I didn’t know if we had enough power points to qualify.”
It looked as if the Tigers, the team that once dominated the Group IV state playoffs, were going to be on the outside looking in. It’s a thought that is almost unfathomable, considering Memorial’s past successes.
“The kids deserve the credit,” Marroquin said. “They kept their heads up. We just needed to get on a little roll. That’s the way the kids thought all year. They kept the faith. We just kept plugging away.”
The Tigers started to play better baseball, play Memorial baseball. The young team, filled with underclassmen, started to gain a little experience and with the experience came some victories.
“We took it as a challenge,” Marroquin said. “We started to get rolling. We thought if we could get into the states, we had a chance to make some noise.”
The Tigers won eight of their next 10 games to get back over the .500 mark. They got into the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs as the No. 12 seed in the bracket.
“It didn’t matter where we were,” Marroquin said. “We were in.”
Sure enough, the Tigers were paired with No. 5 seed Fair Lawn in the first round.
“We knew we could beat them, because we had a scrimmage with them in the preseason,” Marroquin said. “I told them that we could definitely beat them.”
Sure enough, the Tigers won, moving on to the quarterfinals against Clifton. There, another win. It was like old times. The Tigers were experiencing some state playoff glory.
“These kids came back,” Marroquin said.
Junior Jimmy Rodriguez, who has played with the Memorial varsity since his freshman year and entered the school with such huge expectations as being the next big Memorial star, has enjoyed some success late in the season.
“He’s been our horse,” Marroquin said. “He started off the season slow with losses to Cranford and St. Peter’s Prep, but he’s one of the reasons we got hot. He’s been our bulldog lately.”
Mike Gonzalez, another junior right-hander, has also been solid.
“He’s more of an off-speed pitcher, but he’s a battler and a fighter,” Marroquin said.
Sophomore Steven Acosta is another solid contributor on the mound.
“He’s really opened some eyes of the coaching staff,” Marroquin said. “He has a bright future.”
Sophomore Jose Baez is another pitcher who throws strikes. Notice the trend. There isn’t a senior among them.
The catcher is junior Alvaro Suazo, who has developed into one of the Tigers’ best hitters.
“He’s our No. 3 hitter,” Marroquin said. “He’s another who has been with us since he’s a freshman.”
Junior Ruben Rivera is the first baseman who moved in from the outfield this season. Rivera had three hits against Fair Lawn and two against Clifton in the state tourney.
Gonzalez plays a little bit at second base as does Jose Carabella, the team’s lone senior.
Sophomore Victor Guzman is the shortstop who also did some pitching. Earlier in the season, Guzman’s father passed away right before Guzman was scheduled to pitch against Kearny.
“I told him that he didn’t have to pitch, but he said that he wanted to for his father,” Marroquin said. “He won the game.”
Guzman has become a fixture in the Tigers’ lineup as the No. 5 hitter.
Depending upon who is pitching, Carabella, Rodriguez and Acosta share time at third base.
Freshman Giovani Palos is the starting left fielder. His twin brother, Mario, sees time as the designated hitter.
Chris Fernandez, another freshman, plays centerfield, but Baez also sees time there. Junior Ransley Mendez is the right fielder.
The dream ended Wednesday, when the Tigers lost a tough 3-1 decision to Wayne Valley, the top seed, in the sectional semifinals. But the young Tigers went where no one thought they could go, especially after the rough start. With practically the entire team returning, the Tigers certainly have a bright future.
“It puts the pressure on us, because people are going to expect us to do well,” Marroquin said. “Seeing the kids we have and the ones coming in the future makes us ecstatic. We’re going to continue what we’ve been doing.”
Marroquin credited his coaching staff, which includes diligent assistant Jack Nagurka, who was there with Ferrainolo through the glory years, as well as his other assistants.
But the pressure lies with the guy wearing the head coaching tag and Marroquin was able to alleviate that pressure with a fine run in the state playoffs.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.