After posting an impressive 22-4 record a year ago, the St. Mary’s baseball program was poised to have similar success this year. Veteran head coach Pat Laguerre welcomed back a handful of talented performers from last season and figured he had the makings of a team that would once again contend for the HCIAA Seglio Division title.
“Even though we lost some good kids from last year [like Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Miguel Lugo, now at NJIT, and All-Area first baseman Jaime Rosario], I still thought our expectations for this year were pretty high,” said Laguerre, who has dedicated most of his life to the tiny school on Third Street in downtown Jersey City, which Laguerre attended, played basketball, and now teaches and coaches.
“I thought we were going to be pretty strong,” Laguerre said. “Strong teams have good pitching and defense. That’s what we have. I thought we had the right ingredients if we played well.”
However, the Ramblers didn’t exactly inflict fear into the hearts of Hudson County opponents when they dropped their season opener to Weehawken, a team that won all of four games last year.
On paper, the Weehawken game looked like an easy victory for the Ramblers, considering the two were exact polar opposites a year ago. Weehawken was 4-20. St. Mary’s was 22-4.
However, things change in a hurry. Weehawken won the season opener by a score of 5-2.
Last year, the Ramblers won nine straight games to start the season before losing. This time around, they dropped the first one.
“We played poorly,” Laguerre said. “I’m not taking anything away from Weehawken, because they’re a good team and they played better than us. But it was disappointing the way we played and it was just not acceptable. Sure, I expected an adjustment period from some of the kids who never played before. Maybe they were going to be a little nervous. You can’t forget that they’re still kids.”
Added Laguerre, “But the mistakes we made in the first game were made by experienced kids. I think they realized I wasn’t too pleased. I think they got the message.”
After losing the opener, the Ramblers have been a team on a mission.
“Since that first game, we’ve played pretty well and we keep getting better and better,” Laguerre said. “We came back the next game [against St. Joseph of the Palisades] and from the fourth inning on, we just turned it on.”
The Ramblers went on to defeat HCIAA Seglio foes St. Joseph and High Tech, setting up a showdown with undefeated and state-ranked St. Peter’s Prep last Monday afternoon. Again, on paper, this seemed like a mismatch. The Marauders had won their first five games in relatively easy fashion, earning the No. 14 slot in the latest state ranking.
“I didn’t have to tell them who they were playing,” Laguerre said. “We play Prep every year. I thought the game would be a good gauge to see where we stood, whether we won or lost. I didn’t think the score was going to be important. I just wanted the kids to play well.”
The result was astounding. The Ramblers didn’t just defeat the Marauders. They annihilated them, winning by an 11-1 margin.
So much for those games that look good on paper.
“I think we needed a win to separate this team from last year’s team,” said Laguerre, who was a standout basketball player at Jacksonville University during his playing days. “We needed a good win to give this group some confidence.”
It also didn’t hurt that the Ramblers had senior right-hander Ed Rosado on the mound. Rosado won seven games last year and is the only returning pitcher from last year’s Hudson Reporter All-Area team. Rosado could very well be the top pitcher in Hudson County this season.
“When Eddie is on the mound, we feel like we can play with anyone and beat anyone,” Laguerre said. “We think Eddie’s pretty damn good. He could be the ace anywhere. He’s just lights out. Eddie realizes now that he just can’t come out and throw, that he has to be more of a pitcher. He has to continually prove how good we can be as a team.”
Rosado surrendered just two hits to the mighty Marauders, walking one and striking out nine.
“I don’t care who you’re playing,” Laguerre said. “You’re not going to lose when you only give up two hits.”
Behind the pitching of Rosado and the hitting of Rafael Cruz, who had four hits and two RBI, the Ramblers totally steamrolled the Marauders.
“It was a good win,” Laguerre said. “I was really proud of the way we played. We took the lead and then knocked them out. That’s a good sign.”
The Ramblers, now 3-1, have enough pitching depth to be a major factor in the HCIAA Seglio race once again.
Of course, Rosado is the ace, but senior Cruz is also a fine hurler. He won five games for the Ramblers last year and already defeated High Tech in his first start. “Rafael has great stuff and has good command on the mound,” Laguerre said. “He’s in control and has a great change-up. He’s a solid No. 2 pitcher.”
Junior Nelson Maldonado, a transfer from the now-defunct Good Counsel High School in Newark, has been a pleasant surprise on the mound in Laguerre’s eyes. Juniors Juan Cruz (no relation to Rafael), a transfer from Dickinson, and Omar Polanco round out the pitching staff.
“We have enough arms to compete,” Laguerre said.
Senior Angel Rivera has emerged as the Ramblers’ starting catcher. Because of the value in his right arm, Rosado’s days as a backstop are over.
“We can’t use Eddie there anymore,” Laguerre said. “We can’t risk it.”
Rosado, who Laguerre believes has the “potential to be a dynamite hitter,” plays first base when he’s not pitching, alternating time with Rafael Cruz and Maldonado.
Juan Cruz is the everyday second baseman, with junior Cristiel Matias taking over the huge hole left by the graduation of Lugo.
“He does have huge shoes to fill, but he’s adjusting and doing a nice job,” Laguerre said of Matias. “He learned a lot from Lugo and because of that, he comes to play every day.”
Rosado and Rafael Cruz alternate at third base as well whenever the other isn’t pitching.
“We move them all over the place,” Laguerre said.
The outfield is comprised of all newcomers for the Ramblers. Junior Louis Gonzalez is in left field, with senior Manny Carvajal in center and Polanco in right. Laguerre has been impressed with the play of Carvajal.
“He’s been our MVP so far,” Laguerre said. “He’s played great defensively and has been swinging the bat well. He got a big hit against St. Peter’s to help break the game open. He’s been great for us.”
Two freshmen, Fernando Souffront and Andre Sanchez, are also getting their fair share of playing time in a variety of roles, mostly designated hitter.
“Fernando gives us speed and Andre has some pop,” Laguerre said.
So the Ramblers are far better off this week than they were a week ago. A win over one of Hudson County’s premier programs usually can do that. It’s almost a case of going from the outhouse to the penthouse in just one week.
“It’s still just one win, but it reinforces everything you tell them, things you have been preaching and stressing,” Laguerre said. “About playing good defense and getting good pitching. I think they understand that now and if they keep doing that, they have a shot. They know that they have to stop thinking about last year. It’s a win and we’ll take it for what it is, one win. But now, it puts a little more pressure on you, because teams are going to take you a little more seriously.”
And definitely more seriously after losing the season opener to Weehawken. A week can be a lifetime in a high school baseball season. The Ramblers of St. Mary’s are living proof of that.