The idea was first unthinkable, then totally unimaginable.
The NJSIAA Non-Public B baseball state championship game was slated for Saturday at Toms River North High School at 2 p.m. Hudson Catholic had its commencement exercises scheduled for the same day at 11 a.m.
Now, when the powers-that-be on McGinley Square decided last year to hold its graduation on Saturday, June 7, it seemed like a perfect day. A weekend morning so parents, grandparents, friends and family could all celebrate the day with the new graduates. There wasn’t any way possible that the school could have ever thought that the graduation day would conflict with a baseball state championship game.
That’s because Hudson Catholic had never played in a state championship baseball game ever before in the 50-year history of the school.
So it made perfect sense to schedule the graduation on the first Saturday in June.
However, the Hawks made their magical run through the NJSIAA state playoffs, winning their first three games and finally knocking off St. Mary’s of Rutherford to capture the Non-Public B North state sectional, giving the school its first-ever state sectional title.
But there lied the dilemma. How does a school hold a graduation, then expect its baseball team to get to a game down the Shore on a Saturday in the summer three hours later?
Hudson Catholic officials pleaded with the NJSIAA to give them an extra hour, to push the starting time to 3 p.m. The NJSIAA gave in and gave Hudson Catholic 30 minutes. The game against St. Joseph of Hammonton was going to have its first pitch at 2:30 p.m.
Needless to say, it brought a lot of nervous anxiety to Hudson Catholic head coach Alberto Vasquez.
“I was worried about it all week,” Vasquez said. “I was concerned about traffic, Shore traffic. I didn’t know if we would be able to get there on time.”
So right after the pomp and circumstance was over, the Hawks’ seniors had to get on the bus, still donning their caps and gowns, and get on their way for the 66-mile trek down the New Jersey Turnpike and eventually the Garden State Parkway.
There was no time for glad handing, for hugs and embraces from parents and grandparents, for picture taking and smiles.
“It was basically get out of [St. Aedan’s] church, get on the bus and get going,” Vasquez said. “To the kids’ credit, they knew they had a job to do. We had the bus waiting for them, running, in front of the church.”
The Hawks’ underclassmen players were already on board. They were just waiting for their teammates to get going. When everyone got on the bus, it was 12:30 p.m. They had two hours to get to Toms River in time.
Vasquez, who is also a Jersey City police officer, arranged for a police escort for the bus out of Jersey City and to the New Jersey Turnpike.
“It was crazy,” right fielder Victor Guzman said. “We didn’t have time to even see our parents afterwards. I basically had to get my stuff and get on the bus right after.”
But the Hawks didn’t seem to mind.
“Sure, graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” first baseman Michael Albunia said. “But going down the Shore to play for a state championship? That never happens.”
“It was the best,” second baseman Matt Falotico said. “We had our own little party on the bus. We had business to attend to. We got changed on the bus and got ready to play. It really was the best feeling.”
Vasquez’s worries about hitting Shore traffic became a reality halfway down.
“We hit a little traffic, but it got better,” Vasquez said. “Everything then went smoothly.”
The bus rolled into the Toms River North parking lot at 2:10 p.m. First pitch was slated for 20 minutes later.
“Honestly, I think it helped that they had no time to think about what was going on,” Vasquez said. “They didn’t get a chance to take it all in and realize who was there and what they were there for.”
The Hawks got about five minutes to stretch and five minutes of infield practice. That was it.
But they were ready. They scored one run, then added two more. Guzman delivered the crushing blow, a three-run homer.
With ace pitcher Brandon Pilovsky on the mound, a six-run lead was as good as gold.
“We knew that if we got Ski [Pilovsky’s nickname] the lead, we would be in good shape,” Vasquez said. “With six runs, we knew the game was over.”
Pilovsky ended the day with a two-hitter and eight strikeouts and the Hawks truly made it a day to remember with a 7-0 victory and the school’s first-ever baseball state title. Pilovsky, headed to NJIT in the fall on a scholarship, ended his brilliant senior year with a 10-1 record and a 1.12 earned run average. He was one of only three pitchers in New Jersey to win 10 games this spring.
What makes this saga even more improbable is that just a few short years ago, the Archdiocese of Newark tried to close the doors of Hudson Catholic forever.
Vasquez, who is also an alumnus of the school, remembers how he felt when he heard his beloved school was closing.
“I was very disappointed,” said Vasquez, who went on from Hudson Catholic to play at Rutgers and later had a brief stint in pro baseball. “It hurt badly. Coming from Jersey City, my parents struggled to send me here and it was the best thing that could ever happen, sending me to this school.”
Albunia always hoped to go to Hudson Catholic like his older brother, Mario, did.
“I was upset, because I thought I was going to have to go to another school,” Albunia said. “I knew my brother had so much fun here. I wanted to come here to have the same things he had.”
But the school’s alumni base rallied together to keep the padlocks off the doors. The school welcomed girls to help the enrollment and now, Hudson Catholic is flourishing. It would be hard to close the place down now, especially after the baseball team just won the state title.
“I always had a good feeling that something good was going to happen,” Vasquez said. “To go from almost closing to a state champion is just amazing. And I was able to do it as a coach, at my school, the place I loved. It doesn’t get much better than this. It’s a humbling experience, I’ll tell you that.”
Now, the kids have a story that will last a lifetime.
“I can’t put into words what happened,” Falotico said. “It was really a great day.”
“I know I’ll never forget it,” said Albunia, headed to Montclair State in the fall. “I think we leave this school setting such a high standard. It’s up to the next group to keep the winning going on.”
And to know that a state championship banner will hang on the walls in the Joe “Rocky” Pope Memorial Gymnasium, named after the long-time Hudson Catholic baseball and basketball coach, forever.
“I didn’t realize how big this was on Saturday, or even Sunday or Monday,” Vasquez said. “Then I started thinking that I can’t believe what we just did. I think of the people who have been here, like Coach [Mike] Zadroga and John Furch. We came close a couple times, but never won it. Now, people are going to say, ‘Did they really win the states? Did it really happen?’”
It most certainly did – and with a wild story to tell about it.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.