The HCIAA Coviello baseball playoff semifinals were held Wednesday and some of the teams were familiar participants, like St. Peter’s Prep and defending champion Memorial. In its first season ever after the merger of its two schools, Union City was another potential champion.
But the fourth semifinal participant might have raised a few eyebrows. It was none other than the Bulldogs of Ferris High School.
Wait a minute, that Ferris? Weren’t the Bulldogs a sub-.500 team this season?
It might be true, as the Bulldogs took a 10-15 record into their semifinal showdown with the Marauders of Prep Wednesday. It was also the first time since 2002 that Ferris had advanced to the Coviello Division semifinals. They have never played in the title game, so therefore they never won a league title since the playoff system began in the 1980s.
But there they were, on the precipice of creating history in the last HCIAA Coviello playoff ever.
While the Bulldogs might be a newcomer to the post-season party, their head coach certainly is not.
Mike Hogan has enjoyed a brilliant Hall of Fame coaching career over the last three decades, having led both St. Anthony and Marist to HCIAA and NJSIAA state titles during his tenure at those schools.
Hogan is the only Hudson County baseball coach to have sent two products to the major leagues, namely Willie Banks and John Valentin. He is also the only local coach to win state championships at two different schools and one of only three in New Jersey state history to achieve the feat. His ledger and resume speak for itself.
For the last 12 seasons, Hogan has worked diligently with the baseball program at Ferris. It’s been a different challenge for him, one that he has embraced and coddled. He works year-round with his baseball players, giving them a chance to play throughout the summer and fall, to prepare them for the spring months of the regular season.
You name the summer league. Hogan has taken his kids to play. American Legion, Junior Legion, RBI League. When other kids are resting in September, Hogan’s players are headed to a highly competitive fall league in Elizabeth.
“You can’t pack it in at the end of the season in May and pick it up again in March and expect to do the same things all over,” Hogan said. “They play a lot of games in the summer and fall.”
And there is another benefit. Hogan’s kids just love to play the game.
“That’s the biggest plus,” Hogan said. “It’s not like we’re forcing them to play. They like to play. They want to play every chance they can.”
So when everyone thought that the Bulldogs’ high school season was coming to an end, facing second-seeded Bayonne in the opening round of the HCIAA playoffs, the upstart Bulldogs weren’t exactly ready to turn in their uniforms just yet.
Led by a brilliant pitching performance from senior Nelfi Marte, who fired a three-hitter, striking out eight, and hitting a solo home run for good measure, the Bulldogs somehow upset Bayonne, 3-1, after having lost twice to the Bees in the regular season.
“We might have lost to them twice, but they were both competitive games,” Hogan said. “They had beaten us several times over the years, so we knew it was going to be a tough game. We lost some games that were very close this season and lost some others that weren’t close at all. But each time we got blown out, the kids responded.”
Hogan is never one to pad his schedule with paddy cake teams. He makes sure that the Bulldogs play the toughest independent slate possible, as well as the rough-and-tumble world of the HCIAA.
“It’s a very tough league,” Hogan said. “But we’ve beaten some good teams, like Governor Livingston and Memorial. I think the kids were very disappointed when we didn’t make the [NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III] state playoffs. We missed by one game. The kids all knew that this [the county playoffs] was their last shot.”
So they made the most of that shot and extended their season past Memorial Day for the first time in seven years. Jordan Contreras, who had his share of clutch hits down the stretch, delivered a clutch two-run homer against Bayonne that made the upset even more believable.
“It’s a credit to the players,” Hogan said. “It could have been very easy for them to pack it in when things got tough. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, we’re not playing well. Let’s go home.’ But these kids never did that. To their credit, they always play hard. They were trying to do something they never did before. They wanted to get to the finals.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The Bulldogs lost another tough one, falling 4-1 to Prep in the semifinals Wednesday. Marte once again pitched his heart out.
“He’s a kid who worked very hard,” Hogan said of Marte. “He never played baseball before coming here and developed into a good pitcher for us. When he came here from the Dominican Republic, he had only played soccer. But in three years, he became our best pitcher. That’s due to his hard work.”
Hogan also credited his other seniors, like shortstop Luis Pozo, first baseman Jose Rodriguez and the clutch-hitting Contreras.
“The contribution of the seven seniors has been very big,” Hogan said. “They have been there all the time.”
Hogan also has to like his future. Catcher Marcus Pena has developed into a fine backstop with a rifle arm. Second baseman Gary Mercado became the team’s leading hitter, having several games with multiple hits. Centerfielder Rodolfo Santos roams the outfield with grace and style. All three are only sophomores.
Left fielder Edward Stankiewicz and third baseman Jose Periera are only juniors. The cupboard is definitely not bare.
“It was a great accomplishment for these kids to get where they got,” Hogan said. “Record-wise, it wasn’t a great year, but they played hard in a very tough schedule. They beat Bayonne at Bayonne, which no one thought was possible. It’s a very hard place to play. They’re a well-coached team with a lot of good pitching and players. It’s a credit to the kids. They deserve to have success.”
So does the coach. He’s been there before and chances are, Mike Hogan will be there again.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.