SCOREBOARD On to the Little League state tournament North Bergen South first Hudson team to compete for state crown in two decades
by Jim Hague
Aug 11, 2008 | 2153 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Just four years ago, the township of North Bergen didn't offer its youngsters the chance to play Little League baseball. The program was called the North Bergen Volunteer Baseball League and they played under the auspices of Cal Ripken baseball and the Amateur American Baseball Congress (AABC).

But four years ago, the township's recreation department decided to scrap the Volunteer program and go back to Little League.

Now, in such a short period of time, the North Bergen South Little League 12-year-old All-Stars are headed to the New Jersey State Championships.

After defeating Nutley American in thrilling fashion Sunday, taking a come-from-behind 8-7 victory, North Bergen South captured the Section 2 tournament championship, becoming the first Little League team from Hudson County in 20 years to win a sectional title and head to the state tourney.

In 1987, Secaucus Little League earned a trip to the state tourney that was held in Clayton in southern Jersey, falling to eventual champion Nottingham.

A year later, Roberto Clemente Little League of Jersey City shocked everyone by winning the New Jersey state title in Teaneck, earning a berth in the Little League Eastern Regionals in Connecticut.

Since that time, no other representative from the District 7 tourney has won a sectional title and earned a berth to the state tourney. Until now.

The still fledgling Little League program from North Bergen is headed to Bergenfield this weekend, along with teams from Pequannock, Bordentown and Berlin Borough, to battle for the New Jersey state Little League title.

"It really is amazing," said Guillermo Fernandez, the North Bergen South manager. "We're all very excited about this. It's a beautiful feeling. We spent three years just trying to get out of the sectionals. As 10s, we got eliminated in the sectionals. The same thing happened as 11s. But now, we've finally won and we're going on to the states."

And it didn't come easy for the kids from North Bergen, as they had to recover from a 6-1 deficit Sunday to earn the berth to the state tourney.

"We never thought it was over," Fernandez said. "We never think it's over until the final out is recorded. Especially with these kids, who never quit."

When the scoreboard read 6-1 on Sunday, Fernandez rallied his team together.

"I told them that they had come back before and they could do it again," Fernandez said. "We knew that Nutley [American] was a very good team, a very sound team and a very pesky team. It wasn't going to be easy to come back. I won't say that I wasn't nervous, because I was, but I still had faith in my guys."

Fernandez had faith because his entire lineup is filled with kids who can swing the bats and hit the ball - and hard. Some of these North Bergen kids, like first baseman James Rangel, who is a monstrous specimen of a 12-year-old, hit balls harder and further than any other kids their own age. Rangel hit four homers during the Section 2 tourney, including two blasts against Nutley American last Thursday night that are still traveling.

"Even our substitutes are good hitters," Fernandez said. "We're a hitting team and we hit the ball. So I knew we could come back."

In the fourth inning of the title game, North Bergen South erupted, scoring six runs to take the lead. Rangel had put his team on the scoreboard by - what else? - hitting another tape-measure homer.

But in the fourth inning, slick-fielding third baseman Fernie Jimenez hit a double and Nicky Flores walked. There was hope.

P.J. Cardone, the team's tough-as-nails catcher, then laced a two-run single down the left field line, cutting the lead to 6-3. Andy Fernandez, the manager's son, added an RBI single, bringing the kids from North Bergen one run closer.

Up stepped A.J. Gale, who usually plays shortstop, but was thrust into the role as savior on the mound when the usually reliable Jeremy Cerda didn't have his best stuff. There were two runners on base when Gale took his turn at-bat.

Gale then lifted a shot that will forever remain in North Bergen baseball folklore. His three-run homer made the comeback complete, giving North Bergen South a 7-6 lead.

"No question, home runs helped us throughout the tournament," Fernandez said. "It's a good feeling to know that they have the ability to hit the long ball. I'm happy with the singles. Good things happen when you put the ball in play and get on base. That's what I kept preaching. Get on base and good things will happen."

Gale made sure things happened with his historic three-run homer.

Flores added an RBI single in the fifth inning that pushed the North Bergen lead to 8-6. Gale survived some tenuous moments in the bottom of the sixth, when he allowed one run, slicing the advantage to a tedious single run.

"They had second and third with no one out," Fernandez said. "They had the winning run on second base. The next batter hit a line drive to centerfield and I immediately looked down and said, 'Oh, boy, that's it.'"

But it wasn't it. The North Bergen kid known as A-Rod, another Alex Rodriguez, saved the day.

"Out of nowhere, here comes A-Rod with his huge glove and he snared it," Fernandez said. "It was an amazing catch. I can't believe he got it. The catch saved the game."

Gale then struck out the next two batters and North Bergen South had its dance card punched for Bergenfield. "It really is amazing," said Fernandez, who really likes using that term. "We've been able to develop this much talent in such a short time. And we get contributions up and down the lineup. In just three years? It's amazing. There are no words to express this. The kids did it all. They never give up. They practice hard and play hard."

And they hit the ball hard. Do they ever.

"When I pitch to them in batting practice, I can't believe how hard they hit the ball," Fernandez said. "A-Rod hits some shots. James hits shots. A.J., they all hit the ball."

Now, they're heading off to the grand stage, the state's Final Four. There will be a banquet in the kids' honor Thursday night. They're being put up in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Englewood. There will be a parade for the four participating teams as well.

"All of the kids are excited," Fernandez said. "They've never had anything like this before. It's great the way the entire town is supporting us. You look out and see the people rooting for you. It's really special."

So are these kids from North Bergen, creating a slice of their own history, giving Hudson County hope in the state Little League tourney for the first time in 20 years. That says it all.
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