When St. Joseph (Metuchen) decided at the end of the high school baseball season not to rehire the popular and successful Steve Bucchignano as head baseball coach, it left Justin Willis with a little bit of a quandary.
Willis, the talented West New York native who decided to attend the Metuchen school, commuting to Middlesex County from West New York, had a sensational sophomore year at St. Joseph, pitching to a 7-1 record with a 0.74 earned run average, earning Second Team All-State honors.
But Willis could not see himself playing for another coach at St. Joseph.
“I was really in shock,” Willis said of Bucchignano’s demise as head coach. “He had so much success there. I heard rumors that they might replace him, but it was something we really didn’t want to think about.”
With Bucchignano gone, Willis, who earned the distinction of playing for the Team USA 15-and-under national team last summer, decided it was time to come home. Willis will enroll at Memorial in the fall.
“It’s just about me enjoying the last two years of high school,” Willis said. “I’m going to get the chance to play for the next two years with guys who I grew up with.”
Willis admitted that the commute to and from Metuchen daily was becoming a major grind.
“It was taking a toll on me,” Willis said. “It was taking me two hours just to get to school in the morning. I’ll definitely have no problem now.”
Willis joins a Memorial team that won 16 games last year and went to the Ed “Faa” Ford Hudson County Tournament final. The Tigers have a ton of talented players back from that squad, including Hudson Reporter All-Area pitcher Chris Rey.
The Willis transfer gives the Tigers a tenacious 1-2 pitching punch.
Although Willis has national credentials, he’s not going to want to upset the cattle cart.
“It’s his show,” Willis said. “I’m not going to take anything away from Chris. I’m willing to do whatever Coach (Danny Marroquin) needs me to do. Whatever he wants, I’ll try to do it. Chris has always been the type of guy who takes the ball and goes after hitters. I think it’s going to be pretty cool to pitch with Chris. He’s always able to perform well.”
Willis is also a solid infielder when he’s not pitching, so he will fit in very nicely with the Tigers and the rest of their returning players, including All-Area honorees Derrick Fernandez and the Palos twins, outfielder Giovanni and first baseman Mario. Needless to say, the Tigers will begin the 2016 season as the team to beat in Hudson County.
Willis is currently visiting colleges to see what might be the best fit for him down the road. He has been playing summer baseball in Georgia and North Carolina and is headed out to a talent showcase in Long Beach, California in the coming weeks.
“I’m extremely happy with this move,” Willis said. “It’s going to make my life easier and I get to see my family and friends more, as well as my little sister [9-year-old Athena]. I think this is going to be a pretty big year for me.”
As well as a big year for the Tigers, as long as Willis stays healthy. Last year, the Tigers lost ace hurler Steven Acosta to an elbow injury before the season began. Acosta, headed to Stony Brook University next month, had Tommy John surgery, so you never know what can happen.
Regardless, Willis is a huge get for Marroquin and the Tigers and will instantly become the top pitcher in Hudson County baseball next spring…
Guttenberg native and former Marist High School basketball standout John Giraldo is about to receive another huge honor.
Giraldo, who still teaches at Guttenberg’s Anna L. Klein School, will be inducted into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Hall of Fame as Monmouth University’s representative at the MAAC’s display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
Giraldo will receive his honor Oct. 17.
Giraldo, who led Marist to the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title game in 1992 and graduated from Monmouth in 1996, remains the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,749 points. He’s also first all-time in steals with 260 and second all-time in assists with 492.
Giraldo has already been inducted into the Marist High School Hall of Fame, the Monmouth Hall of Fame and last year added the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame to his impressive ledger, all before the age of 40.
“It’s funny, last year, I was coaching at Roselle Catholic and we went to the Hall of Fame in Springfield,” Giraldo said. “I saw the MAAC display and all the inductees, but I never played in the MAAC, so I didn’t think I had a chance.”
Monmouth became a member of the MAAC two years ago.
“I got a call from the Monmouth athletic director [Dr. Marilyn McNeil] and she said that the school was nominating me for the Naismith Hall of Fame display. It’s pretty wild how this has all happened for me in the past year. It’s been a big year.”
Giraldo admitted that earning Hall of Fame honors usually come to retired athletes much older.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” Giraldo said. “It does make me feel a little old. When I get older, I’ll have nothing to look forward to. I’m only kidding. Going to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is huge. To see my name there will be so nice. I’m getting very excited about it.”
Giraldo has another reason to be excited this fall. He was just named recently as the new head coach at Matawan High School, which is right next to where Giraldo and his family live in Marlboro.
“I’m extremely excited to be starting my own program and being the head guy,” Giraldo said. “I spent the last eight years trying to learn to be a head coach. I’m going to put all the things I’ve learned and mix it all together.”
Giraldo and his wife have a 9-year-old daughter Camila and a 2-year-old boy Lucas.
“Growing up, I played basketball because it was a time that I could spend with my friends. I never thought I could make a living off of basketball.”
Giraldo was fortunate enough to play professional basketball for nine years in places like Colombia, Venezuela, Portugal, Germany and Argentina. He was a three-time Most Valuable Player in Colombia.
“I got to play overseas for a while,” Giraldo said. “That all comes to mind now because it’s over. I think getting an honor like this makes all the hard work worth it. I appreciate the skill and the talent I had. But it was what I loved doing. It was never a grind.”
And now, the multiple Hall of Famer gets to tackle another challenge _ being a head coach on the high school level.
“I can’t wait to get started,” Giraldo said. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.