The unlikely of undefeated

Ferris enjoying remarkable turnaround season

It was a week before the 2002 high school baseball season was about to start and veteran baseball coach Mike Hogan, beginning his fifth year as the head coach of Ferris, had to wonder what else could go wrong – even before his team threw a single pitch.

Hogan, who had constructed the powerful baseball programs at St. Anthony and Marist, winning HCIAA and NJSIAA state championships at each school, really didn’t have a proven varsity pitcher to begin the year.

His starting second baseman, sophomore Wilmer Mendez, was savagely beaten and randomly attacked near his home and suffered a broken jaw, forcing him to the sidelines for the season. His standout returning catcher, junior Izzy Cuadra, had a medical emergency that required surgery that put him out of action. He had a host of new players filling a variety of positions.

For a team coming off a 9-16 campaign a year ago, it wasn’t easy for Hogan and the Bulldogs. So Hogan made the goals very basic for his team.

"We wanted to get to .500 and make the county and state playoffs," said Hogan, a veteran of 21 seasons coaching baseball in Hudson County. "That’s all we told the kids. That was our realistic goal."

In retrospect, just how realistic was that goal?

The Bulldogs were 9-16 overall and 4-9 in the HCIAA last season.

"We didn’t come close to making the playoffs," Hogan said.

The Bulldogs certainly worked hard in the off-season, playing together through summer American Legion and into a fall league. However, the Bulldogs didn’t exactly light up the summer sky like Independence Day fireworks. They played in the Bergen-Passaic American Legion league through the summer months of 2001 and posted a robust 2-19 record.

"We beat Passaic, got a win by forfeit and lost every other game," Hogan said. "Everyone beat us. We got our heads handed to us."

But the kids kept coming back.

"They played a lot of games in the summer and a lot of games in the fall," Hogan said. "They put a lot of time in and got a lot better. We don’t get kids that have great talent, but they are willing to get better. They worked hard lifting weights in the winter. They got stronger and got better."

However, how much better?

"It’s hard to say before the season," Hogan said. "I think everyone was looking at other teams."

The Bulldogs had no proven pitcher to speak of. Sure, senior Frolian Ramirez came off the junior varsity last year to pitch pretty well in the summer and fall, but he was still unproven. Hogan has never allowed his starting shortstop to pitch since current New York Met John Valentin pitched for St. Anthony in 1985, so that discounted senior Rolando Gonzalez from making an impact on the mound.

But Hogan had faith in both Ramirez and Gonzalez – and that faith has paid gigantic dividends.

"Rolando is a competitor," Hogan said. "As a pitcher, he just throws strikes. Frolian pitched well all summer. He just didn’t win, but you could see he had the talent. We thought he’d be good. But to have the numbers and the success they’ve had? We never thought this could happen. They’ve both pitched well."

The this Hogan is referring to is undefeated records for both pitchers. Ramirez is 6-0. Gonzalez is 5-0.

"The pitchers have done a great job and the kids have played good defense behind them," Hogan said.

The Bulldogs haven’t exactly displayed a devastating offensive attack. No player is batting over .400. Baseball experts say games are won by pitching and defense – and there’s no better proof that the Bulldogs of Ferris, because the Bulldogs are 15-5 overall and more amazingly, they are a perfect 10-0 inside the HCIAA.

The Bulldogs have gained confidence with each passing victory, but the one win that really sealed the deal was the 4-0 shutout over three-time defending HCIAA champion St. Peter’s Prep last week.

"In the previous four years that I’ve been here, we didn’t come close against Prep," Hogan said. "The games were over and over early. We lost, 14-4, 10-1, games like that. So that was a big win."
Ask Hogan to say something about each of the starting lineup and he’ll mention one thing over any other.

"He plays solid defense," is the term Hogan uses over and over about his players.

Junior first baseman Elfido Martinez is a solid defender. Junior Victor Beltre, thrust into action at second base when Mendez suffered the broken jaw, is a solid defender. No one questions Gonzalez’ performance at short when he’s not pitching. Albert Rivera plays shortstop when Gonzalez is pitching. They play solid defense.

At third base, junior Lenin Saturria and freshman Oscar Fernandez share time. Junior Joe Rojas was asked to be the team’s catcher, while Cuadra healed from his surgery. Cuadra has since returned to his familiar spot behind the plate. Rojas, who has become one of the Bulldogs’ best hitters, has become the team’s left fielder, along with junior Manny Gonzalez.

Senior Radames Cuevas and senior Kelvin Perez round out the Bulldogs’ outfield.

Needless to say, Hogan is very pleased with his team’s accomplishments, posting a record that no one thought was possible.

"I told the kids that it’s a credit to them that they have done a good job," Hogan said. "People have noticed it. Around school, people are wishing them good luck. I told the kids that they put in a lot of time and earned what they’re getting. There were no short cuts."

Added Hogan, "They’ve done what we’ve asked and exceeded what we could have asked for. We weren’t expected to be there. But if we’re satisfied with what we have so far, then that’s not enough."

In the coming days, the Bulldogs have games with Bayonne, Memorial and North Bergen. The season is far from over. But the playoffs await, both the state and county. The Bulldogs are undefeated in the league. The thought alone is beyond belief.

Mike Hogan has done remarkable coaching jobs over the last two decades. He’s built two programs from scratch. In watching this team of no-stars reach unimaginable heights, this is his best coaching performance to date.

Perhaps the best is even yet to come.


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