After enjoying a 23-5 season that culminated in another HCIAA Coviello Division championship a year ago, veteran Memorial High School head coach Tony Ferrainolo didn’t know what to expect from his team in 2007.
When you consider that the Tigers not only graduated the two-time Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player in Jesus Castano, who won nine games as a pitcher and batted .420 in becoming the only two-time recipient of the local MVP award, but also lost All-Area pitcher Andy Ortiz, who won seven games on the mound, it was a huge blow to the team’s pitching staff.
“I didn’t know what we had in terms of pitching,” said Ferrainolo, who won the 600th game of his coaching career two seasons ago and is one of only a handful of coaches to reach the milestone. “The pitching was a big question mark. I knew we had good players in the field, but I was worried about the pitching. You can replace what we lost. Castano won nine games, Ortiz won seven. That’s a lot.”
So the Tigers entered the new season with serious doubts about their pitching staff.
“We didn’t have a main guy like we had in previous years,” Ferrainolo said. “We had a lot of kids who could throw, but no ace like we had in the past.”
Like Luis Fernandez a few years ago, followed by Robinson Polanco and then last year Castano. With those guys, Ferrainolo could just hand them the ball and walk away without a single care in the world, knowing full well that they would control the game from the mound.
In fact, the staple of Memorial’s success over the ages, an era that spans decades now, has been great pitching and solid defense. The Tigers traditionally have had the pitchers that got the job done when necessary, year after year.
“We had a lot of question marks at pitcher,” Ferrainolo said. “It was up to whether the kids could step up and assume the roles we needed.”
One of the pitchers was senior Tye Schroeder, who was on the team last year, but decided to walk away.
“I’ve always told kids that if they leave and want to come back, they can come back fresh,” Ferrainolo said. “He came to see me before this year and told me he wanted another chance to play. He’s just hard on himself and puts too much pressure on himself. He needed to just remain within himself.”
Another was fellow senior Wesley Lopez, who only had a few innings experience from last year’s team. Senior Sam Reyes didn’t pitch varsity last year at all, the same for junior righty Ethan Moya. Sophomore Jose Saldana was strictly an outfielder, albeit a talented one who earned All-Area honors as a freshman. But Saldana had no experience whatsoever as a hurler.
The entire pitching staff was virtually unproven.
“I think we just needed them to come out and throw strikes,” Ferrainolo said. “We knew the offense would do well.”
Well, the pitchers have thrown strikes and the offense has been on fire. The result is an 8-0 start and another state ranking for the Tigers. Just like old times. Without even missing a beat. The Tigers are right at the top of the Hudson County rankings, headed for yet another HCIAA Coviello title run.
Schroeder has stepped up and emerged as the ace so far, winning three games. The diminutive Moya has a 2-0 record. Lopez has a 1-0 record and has pitched well. Reyes and even Saldana have one win each.
And the hitting has been there, even without standout shortstop Ramon Feliz catching fire yet. Feliz, a two-time All-Area honoree in the past, has all the tools to be ranked among the best Memorial shortstops of all time and could very well be drafted by a major league team when the free agent draft takes place in June. Feliz is batting .393 with seven RBI thus far, but it’s almost a quiet .393 for someone of his talents.
“The other players have been stepping up,” Ferrainolo said. “When Ramon gets hot, watch out. We’re hoping that he gets started soon.”
Junior Abel Blanco, who was converted into a catcher last year and managed to earn All-Area honors in the process, returns behind the plate. Now entrenched as a catcher, Blanco is hitting .450 with seven RBI and handles the Tiger pitchers well.
“He’s one of the better catchers in the county,” Ferrainolo said.
Senior first baseman Steve Caracena also returns, displaying some power this year to go along with a solid glove. Caracena has a homer and seven RBI thus far.
Senior Felipe Morrobel, who was the Tigers’ designated hitter last year, has inherited the second base duties while Feliz becomes the full-time shortstop. Morrobel has delivered in the clutch thus far, collecting eight RBI with his .375 batting average.
Junior Randy Estrella is another returnee, returning to his duties at third base. Estrella, who led the Tigers in RBI last season, is on his way again, collecting eight RBI with a .444 batting average and two homers so far.
“He’s been our most consistent hitter thus far,” Ferrainolo said.
Saldana, who was a pleasant surprise last year as a freshman, returns to his left field slot. Saldana is batting .357 and also has seven RBI in the early going.
“He has great potential,” Ferrainolo said of Saldana. “He has power and great speed. He’s fun to watch play.”
Senior David Hernandez is the starter in centerfield and junior Randy Castillo starts in right field. Castillo is also the Tigers’ leadoff hitter and igniter in the lineup. Talented freshman Ariel Soriano is pushing his way into the outfield mix. The youngster can also pitch when called upon.
“He’s a player,” Ferrainolo said of the rookie Soriano. “We have to get him in there.”
Junior Al Aguero is the team’s utility performer, seeing time at designated hitter, first base and second base.
While Ferrainolo says that his team doesn’t necessarily have a pitching ace, he has learned to use a pairing of his pitchers in big situations, like allowing Schroeder and Lopez to pitch a few innings in the same game. That’s the advantage of having several kids who can pitch.
“If Tye and Wesley are both available, I won’t hesitate to use both,” Ferrainolo said.
That may be enough pitching for the terrific Tigers to roar their way toward another county crown.
“I think we can win again,” Ferrainolo said. “We’re certainly going to be in the running again. Pitching is what got us there in the past. I think we’ll be there in the end again. I think over the years once we started winning, they started to believe like they were the team to beat. They have to accept the challenge of the teams coming in, wanting to beat Memorial.”
It won’t be easy to topple the Tigers – once again.