It was a golden opportunity for the Union City High School baseball program, getting a chance to play a state-ranked opponent in a professional setting.
“We don’t get chances like that every day,” said Union City head coach Chipper Benway. “Our kids come from a socio-economic background that doesn’t afford them a chance like that. It was really special to get the opportunity to play at the Newark Bears [& Eagles Riverfront] Stadium. It meant a lot for us to play at that venue.”
It also meant a lot for the Soaring Eagles to face Hudson County rival St. Peter’s Prep at the pro facility.
After all, the Marauders had won 15 straight games and were ranked No. 3 in the entire state before facing the Soaring Eagles.
“We’ve beaten them in the past, but then they turned around and beat us in the county tournament,” Benway said.
So the game last week at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark was a chance for the Soaring Eagles to prove they belonged among the best teams in Hudson County.
“We’ve tried very hard to change the whole stigma that they have,” Benway said. “I have a great regard for [Prep head coach] Pat Laguerre and what he’s been able to do there. He’s a great guy and a great coach. We had to get over the hump and beat them in a big game.”
Sure enough, that’s what happened last week. Junior left-hander Justin Vazquez scattered just two hits and the Soaring Eagles pounded out 14 hits in a 5-4 victory.
When the final out was recorded, the Soaring Eagles rushed toward Vazquez like they had just won the World Series. That’s how big the win was.
Sure, Union City owns an impressive 15-6 record on its own, but the win over Prep gives the Soaring Eagles instant credibility, both locally and statewide.
The success doesn’t come as a surprise to Benway. He knew that the Soaring Eagles would be an elite team this year.
“We took our lumps last year playing a team of mostly sophomores,” Benway said. “I was hopeful that the lumps we took would pay off down the road, like this year. We felt we could be right in the mix this year, right in the top five or six in the county. That’s why I wasn’t upset about last year. I knew we would be able to compete this year. We know that if we want to have a legitimate program, we have to have a program that is going to compete every year.”
Added Benway, “This year, we were built to compete with anyone.”
The crafty lefty Vazquez overcame a lack of support from his defense, especially after the Soaring Eagles jumped out to a 4-1 lead.
The Marauders, not willing to allow their winning streak dissipate so easily, used a bit of wildness and some shoddy defensive play to score three runs in the fifth inning, tying the game at 4-4.
But to his credit, Vazquez didn’t buckle.
He stayed tough with his sharp curveball and kept the Marauders off guard by mixing up the speed of his pitches.
“He kept the ball down,” Benway said of Vazquez. “He did a nice job. It was a matter of keeping them off balance with his pitches. He had to adapt a little after they tied the score. We could have folded up the tent after they scored three times. We let them back into the game. But we came right back and got another run and held on. And Vazquez finished it.”
Holding the Marauders to just two hits is nothing to sneeze at. Vazquez pitched the game of his life.
Benway said that the Soaring Eagles played the Marauders the first time around.
“We were up, 1-0, in the sixth inning, before falling apart,” Benway said. “So we knew we could play with them. Now, we know we can beat them on a regular basis.”
The Soaring Eagles will get another chance at the Marauders, when the two teams meet in the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament semifinals. That game was scheduled to be played after press time Thursday.
“They’re still ranked No. 3 in the state,” Benway said. “They’re a very good team. But we feel like we have a good team as well.”
Benway definitely has a young team. The Soaring Eagles have only two seniors on the entire roster. Most of the team is comprised of sophomores and juniors.
“We got knocked around last year a little, but it all came down to whether these kids could withstand the punch,” Benway said. “We’re still a very young team.”
Benway said that the Soaring Eagles have been getting contributions from the entire lineup.
“There hasn’t been one person delivering the hits,” Benway said. “It’s been a team effort. We might not have the best shortstop, the best first baseman or the best centerfielder in the county, but we could very well have the best team.”
Bryan Dominguez had two hits and three RBI in the win over St. Peter’s. He’s a junior left fielder. Josie Tavarez had some clutch hits in the win. He’s only a sophomore third baseman. Danny Perez is a capable shortstop and Kevin Perez is a solid catcher. Only the latter Perez is an upperclassman.
“It’s been a collective team effort,” Benway said.
And it’s an effort that puts the Soaring Eagles in the county semifinals. Marist and Kearny will meet in the other semifinal for the right to play for the county crown this weekend.
But the Soaring Eagles are right where their head coach thought they would be.
“I really expected the success this year,” Benway said. “It was just up to the kids to believe.”
After their win last week in Newark, it’s safe to say that the Soaring Eagles truly believe they belong.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.