The Bulldogs of Ferris High School were perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2002 high school baseball season. After losing their starting catcher to illness and their starting second baseman to a freak injury right before the start of the season, the Bulldogs seemed headed toward a lost season a year ago.
But veteran coach Mike Hogan, one of the most respected baseball minds in New Jersey, put together a surprisingly tough pitching staff (led by Hudson Reporter All-Area hurler Frolian Ramirez) and managed to win 17 games, earning Hudson Reporter Coach of the Year honors.
As the 2003 season began recently, Hogan needed to not only replace Ramirez, but his No. 2 pitcher and starting shortstop Rolando Gonzalez.
"They were big losses," said Hogan, who led both St. Anthony and Marist to NJSIAA Parochial B state championships during his career and was the high school coach of major leaguers Willie Banks and John Valentin. "We had to find other pitchers. We don't have anyone who could throw as hard as Frolian."
Hogan has seven, perhaps eight players who can pitch. So while Hogan might not have a standout hurler like Ramirez or even a steady No. 2 like Gonzalez was, he does have some depth to get through the string of games that are about to be rescheduled after last week's snow and rain.
Leading the array of Bulldog hurlers is junior right-hander Adolfo Santos. Hogan feels that Santos could become a fine high school pitcher, as long as he finds the strike zone. Santos had a little difficulty in the season opener against Bayonne, walking six, but he will improve.
"Santos has the ability to become a quality pitcher," Hogan said. "He didn't show that against Bayonne because he walked too many batters. Once he throws strikes, he will be fine."
When he's not pitching, Santos will play the outfield. Hogan considers Santos as his best defensive outfielder.
Junior Jonathan Beniquez is another pitcher that Hogan can call upon, as well as the Bulldogs' top centerfielder. Seniors Manny Gonzalez, Victor Beltre, Elfido Martinez, and Jose Montalvo, as well as juniors Thomas Mitchell and Bladimil Ferreras will all toe the hill for the Bulldogs this season.
"We have some depth in our pitching," Hogan said.
Hogan is lucky to have one of the best catchers in the county handling all that pitching in senior Izzy Cuadra, who also made the Hudson Reporter All-Area team a year ago, batting .350.
"In all my years of coaching, we always had a good shortstop and a good catcher," Hogan said. "Izzy is a very good catcher. He's showing more leadership this year and is being more vocal than he has been in the past. He blocks the ball well and catches it. He's also our best hitter."
Martinez returns as the team's first baseman.
"Elfido is a good defensive first baseman who has improved a lot with the bat," Hogan said. "In the preseason scrimmages, he was our second best hitter. I expect good things from him."
Beltre returns at second base, where he is backed up by junior Wilmer Mendez, who missed all of last season with a broken jaw.
Mitchell, who has shown a lot of promise, replaces Gonzalez at shortstop.
"He's our leadoff batter and has good speed," Hogan said.
Third base is being shared by senior Lenin Saturria, who batted .300 last year, and sophomore Oscar Fernandez, who is a lefty bat.
In the outfield, Hogan has a group of six players he can mix and match.
"Any of those six can start any day," Hogan said. "It's going to be like musical chairs. Only three can play, so others are going to be unhappy, but they have to deal with it. It all depends upon their attitudes."
Santos, Beniquez, Gonzalez, Montalvo, as well as senior Christian Camejo and senior Juan Garcia will all see time in the outfield mix.
Hogan has faith in his infield, especially defensively.
"The infield defense is good," Hogan said. "The outfield is a question. We do have some question marks hitting, so we have to play good defense to be successful."
Hogan also realizes that qualifying for the HCIAA Coviello playoffs will be more difficult this year, because only six teams make it, instead of eight.
"There are only 11 league games," Hogan said. "I figure that you have to win seven of the 11 to get in the playoffs. It's going to be interesting, especially now that we're going to get backed up with games. But that's our goal, to get a playoff spot. We have to pitch better than we've shown so far to compete for one, but that's the goal."
Count on the Bulldogs to be in the hunt down to the final pitch. Hogan wouldn't have it any other way. - Jim Hague