Vinnie Johnson didn’t expect to be the head coach of the Hoboken High School softball program this season. Johnson, who has been a youth softball coach in the Hoboken Recreation department for ages, joined the staff at Hoboken High after the demise of the High Tech athletic programs four years ago.
Johnson was content being a dutiful assistant to long-time head coach Carmine Ronga, but when Ronga was unceremoniously removed from his coaching responsibilities for an infraction last year, Johnson was asked to step in and take over without missing a beat.
“I guess I was comfortable with the team, because I had been around most of them since they were younger, playing in Hoboken Rec,” Johnson said. “But I had some thoughts that ran through my mind. Would I be able to coach these kids on the high school level, especially the seniors, who had been with Carmine so long?”
Johnson said the doubts dissipated a little once the season officially began.
“I thought once we got together, we had a chance to be pretty good,” Johnson said.
The Red Wings came out of the blocks like gangbusters, winning their first seven games of the season. Things looked good for Johnson and his new-found program.
Then adversity kicked in. The Red Wings lost five of seven games.
“There was some worry,” Johnson said. “I know the girls I had. I knew they could bounce back. We were losing games like 2-1 and 3-1. It wasn’t like we were getting killed. When we went on that lull, we just weren’t hitting the ball.”
The losing ways remained for the Red Wings, when they lost to Weehawken, 3-1 in the opening round of the Hudson County Tournament.
“I knew that we still had a pretty decent team,” Johnson said. “We were definitely disappointed to lose in the first round. We wanted to go further in the county. At that point, we were struggling.”
But there still was the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs to contend with. Johnson knew that the state playoffs represented a new season.
“We made some changes to get our best hitters in the game,” Johnson said. “Then things started to click for us. We had to think that anything was possible. That’s what you play for. I knew the kids. I knew that they had some fight in them. I had some idea of what they were able to do.”
The Red Wings made their way through the North 2, Group I state playoffs, disposing of Dayton Regional, then gaining revenge on Weehawken, then faced Glen Ridge for the state sectional title.
Hoboken had won only one previous state sectional title in 2007. Secaucus won its first last year. High Tech won two before the athletic program was dissolved and North Bergen won a state crown back in 1987.
And that’s it for the softball history of Hudson County. Incredibly, in the almost 50-year history of softball in the county, only five teams had previously earned a state sectional championship trophy.
Johnson knew that the odds were stacked against the Red Wings.
But the Red Wings were undaunted. Led by the pitching of senior hurler Nicole Barron and the clutch hitting of shortstop Naomi Olacio, the Red Wings defeated Glen Ridge, 4-2, to earn the school’s second-ever NJSIAA state title.
“We tried to stay under the radar,” Johnson said. “We just try to go out and have fun. Whatever happens, happens.”
Barron has been a staple as the team’s pitcher. Working under the guidance of her older sister, assistant coach Ashley, the former Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year a few years ago at Hoboken, Nicole Barron has emerged as a top hurler.
“She’s come a long way,” Johnson said. “She’s a little quiet and shy, but she’s stepped up as a leader this year and the kids have all followed her lead. She lost some tough games as a pitcher, but she has kept us in games with her pitching. She keeps the ball low and pitches inside. She’s very consistent.”
Johnson also praises the elder Barron.
“Ashley is amazing,” Johnson said. “She’s going to be a great head coach someday. She knows the game well and pushes the kids, motivates the kids. The relationship she has with her two sisters is amazing.”
There’s another Barron on the team, namely sophomore first baseman Taylor Barron.
“We lost Taylor to a concussion midway through the season and that’s when we started to struggle,” Johnson said. “She’s been solid at first base.”
The Red Wings also have a pair of twin sisters on the team in catcher Alizea Henriquez and centerfielder Jaeda Henriquez. The daughters of former Hoboken football star Anthony Henriquez, the freshmen have truly galvanized the Red Wings’ roster.
“Alizea has continued her big hitting all season,” Johnson said of the former Athlete of the Week honoree earlier this season. “She got the big hits when we needed them. She’s also done well behind the plate defensively. Jaeda is our No. 2 hitter in our lineup and she gets to every ball in the outfield.”
The Red Wings have another freshman at second base in Elizabeth Moyeno.
“She’s a very good fielder who has been able to turn double plays at second,” Johnson said. “She has a great glove.”
Olacio, a junior, is a stellar all-around player at shortstop.
“She’s been playing for me since she was 11 years old,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done with the Rec program.”
Kayla Morrisette, a four-year varsity starter, is the third baseman.
“She’s our best power hitter,” Johnson said.
Senior Dana Burrell is a solid left fielder.
“She’s just a good athlete who gets to the ball all the time,” Johnson said.
Senior Sam Mont is the right fielder, with sophomore Brianna Peguero as the team’s designated player.
The team was scheduled to face Butler in the overall Group I semifinals Wednesday with a berth to Toms River and the state championships on the line.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “I think the team is more relaxed and they’ve bought into that.”
Needless to say, the Red Wings have had their share of ups and downs, all in Johnson’s first season as head coach.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Johnson said. “The only problem I have now is backing it up. We have seven girls coming back next year. Some people are going to ask if this is a fluke. But if our kids come to play, we should be in good shape.”
First things first. The Red Wings, winners of the state sectional champion with a non-descript record of 13-7, have some games to play yet this season, like trying to get a journey down the Shore for an even bigger prize.