In recent years, when someone wanted to talk about the upper echelon high school baseball teams in Hudson County, there were a lot of names that came to mind.
Of course, Memorial and St. Peter’s Prep would be the first two schools mentioned, and deservedly so. The Tigers and the Marauders have earned their reputations by being perennial winners, capturing their fair share of championships, with Memorial winning in 2008 and Prep winning the county crown last year.
But then there would be the mentions of Bayonne or Hoboken or last year’s HCIAA Seglio Division champ St. Mary’s. County Prep won its first-ever NJSIAA state sectional championship last year. Hudson Catholic has been in the mix in recent years, winning the HCIAA title in 2007.
And then there’s North Bergen, the big school in northern Hudson County that baseball has seemed to simply forget about. The Bruins have been competitive in recent years, but as they would just begin to scrape the surface of climbing into the penthouse apartments, they would find a way to fall just a little short and remain with the rest of the pack.
“That’s okay by us,” North Bergen head coach Patrick Brady said. “We sort of like it that way. We don’t mind being overlooked one bit.”
The Bruins were 12-12 last year, but had to win their last six games to make it even into the HCIAA and NJSIAA playoffs. They featured a young roster comprised mainly of sophomores and juniors.
“I thought that we could be able to build on that momentum from last year,” Brady said. “I really liked the way we came together at the end of last season.”
The Bruins worked hard together in the summer months and into the fall, playing in the competitive Union County Fall Baseball League in September and October.
“I knew that we had a good returning nucleus,” Brady said. “I knew that we could be pretty good if everything came together. They’re a good group of kids who have played together for the last few years. It was a good, experienced group.”
Most of the key Bruin players have been on the varsity together for at least three years. Some are playing in their fourth year of varsity baseball. That’s experience you just don’t find every day.
Take for instance, the Bruins’ talented shortstop who is also among the forgotten, Anel Sotolongo. The brilliant Sotolongo has seen his name appear in local newspapers with about 27 different spellings.
In fact, when Sotolongo was selected to the Hudson Reporter’s All-Area team last year, he was listed as “Angel Sotolongo,” just another of the litany of misspellings.
But make no bones about it. Anyway you spell it, this kid can flat out play. He also serves as the Bruins’ closer, pitching eight innings with nine strikeouts thus far, but the kid’s bread-and-butter is at shortstop. He’s hitting .425 thus far with a homer and 11 RBI. Sotolongo collected the 100th hit of his high school career earlier in the season, joining only former All-Area honorees Sean Kelly and Gabe Ramirez as former Bruins to reach the career milestone.
Senior Alex Teran is another Bruin with three years of varsity baseball experience. Teran is the Bruins’ leadoff hitter and left fielder.
“He’s our table setter and he gets it going for us at the top of the order,” Brady said.
Teran is batting .411 with 17 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.
Junior Jesse Baiza is the team’s centerfielder and cleanup hitter. Baiza is hitting .489 with 15 RBI. He has also played three years with the North Bergen varsity.
“He crushes the ball,” Brady said.
There aren’t many teams that can boast about having so much experience and veteran leadership.
The Bruins also have a deep and talented pitching staff, with six hurlers already collecting at least one win this season.
“We have a lot of quality arms,” Brady said.
Leading the way is junior right-hander Azriel Andrickson, who has a 2-0 record with a 2.50 earned run average. Freshman lefty Marco Hernandez also has a 2-0 record and shows no signs of being a nervous unproven rookie. Juniors Nick Garcia and Kevin Alonso have also shown moments of brilliance on the mound, as has sophomore righty Gianni Zayas, the younger brother of former St. Joseph of the Palisades star Gil Zayas, who was a two-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year before going on to St. John’s University and later pro ball.
The elder Zayas now works as an assistant coach under Brady at North Bergen.
Junior Kevin Cepeda, a good defensive backstop, is the catcher, with senior John Stark at first. Stark, the football standout headed to Franklin & Marshall to play football, has been a calming influence on the Bruins’ diamond.
“He gives us big leadership and anchors the infield,” Brady said of Stark.
Alonso is the starting second baseman who bats second in the order and forms a nice double play combination with stalwart Sotolongo.
Sophomore Willie Cruz sees time at third along with Gianni Zayas.
Teran’s in left, with Baiza in center and another football standout, Chris Vann, manning right. Vann just recently returned from an injury.
The results have been staggering. In a year where the perennial top teams have struggled a little, North Bergen has moved to the forefront. The Bruins own an 8-2 record thus far, with their only losses coming to state-ranked power Randolph and local power St. Peter’s.
“As long as we play clean baseball, we can play with anyone,” Brady said. “I think we’ve proven that. I think once we lost to St. Peter’s, the season turned around.”
It’s true. Since the loss to Prep, the Bruins have won their last five straight, including big wins over High Tech and Bayonne.
“The loss to Prep was the eye-opener,” Brady said. “The attitude of the team has been that if everyone does what they’re supposed to do, they can play with anyone. I figured we could play well if we have confidence in our ability. I think we’re all pretty excited with what we’ve been doing, but it’s far from over.”
However, everyone’s going to take a little notice of the Bruins now, because they’re winning and sitting atop the rest in Hudson County. You can only be a secret in this county for so long.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.