The Union City High School baseball team won an impressive 16 games last season and advanced all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship game before falling to Randolph.
With most of that team returning this season, one would have to expect veteran head coach Chipper Benway to have high aspirations as the 2016 season begins this weekend.
Or maybe not.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Benway said. “We have won two league titles and have two appearances in state sectional finals over the last few years. But we go through a constant changeover.”
For example, the Soaring Eagles lost three players to professional baseball, having signed pro contracts in the Dominican Republic, where players can sign at the age of 16. All three were Dominican natives, so they were eligible to sign.
One of whom was standout Juan Batista, a two-year starter for the Soaring Eagles and a Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree last spring. Batista signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“What can you do?” Benway said. “Because of it, we are still in the state of flux. We’re still trying to change the culture here. At one time here, baseball was the be all and end all of kids’ lives. It’s not the case anymore. It’s still a challenge here.”
But the Soaring Eagles do have seven key players back from last year, including most of the pitching staff.
“Unfortunately, our kids have to worry about picking up their baby brothers from child care or going to work,” Benway said. “Some kids didn’t do a thing in the offseason. We struggled in our preseason scrimmages. I think this will be one of those teams that will have to progress as the season moves on. We haven’t put in the work where we can pick up where we left off last year.”
Leading the returnees is senior right-handed pitcher Sandro Martinez, who was the team’s top hurler a year ago, winning six games.
When Martinez is on, he’s as good as they come in the county.
J.C. Arrandando is another talented right handed pitcher who won four games last year.
“We always had a staff of solid 2’s and 3’s,” Benway said. “We just never had that great No. 1 ace like other teams.”
Justin Vazquez is a fine senior left-hander who won three games last year. As a sophomore, Vazquez threw a two-hitter to knock off St. Peter’s Prep at a time when the Marauders were ranked No. 3 in the entire state.
Senior Neil Alzamora is another left-hander with good mechanics and deceptive stuff.
“Not many teams can throw two lefties,” Benway said. “So we have an advantage there. We have a solid pitching staff, just no one who can blow you away.”
Senior Armando Ovalles is the team’s catcher.
‘He’s the team’s backbone,” Benway said.
Senior Frankie Polanco is the first baseman. He’s also been getting attention as a pitcher after thrpwing 89 miles per hour at a local camp. Polanco is raw as a pitcher, but throwing that hard will certainly open some eyes.
Junior Leo Paredes is the team’s second baseman, with either Jonathan Rosario or junior Jeffrey Pena, a transfer from St. Anthony, getting the nod at shortstop.
Arrandando and Derek Fernandez, a transfer from Memorial, will share the time at third base.
Jose Tavares, who was the team’s third baseman last year, is now in left field. It marks the seventh straight year that someone Jose Tavares is in the Soaring Eagles’ starting lineup. Yes, Tavares has an older brother also named Jose. They are sometimes distinguishable with names like Josie and Josue, but for all intents and purposes, they are both Jose.
Confused? It’s easy to get that way.
The centerfield duties are being shared by senior Luis Fernandez and junior Nelson Luciano, who when asked said he didn’t mind the nickname of “Lucky,” and actually knew the historic reference to Lucky Luciano, thanks to the television show “Boardwalk Empire.”
To those who don’t know about the original Lucky Luciano, he was a notorious gangster in the 1920s. This personable and happy kid is nowhere near gangster level and in fact is quite the opposite. He took the gesture in stride and now instantly becomes a personal favorite.
Right field duties will be handled by junior Ralph Pereira and senior Deven Goldbecher, who has some pop in his bat.
The Soaring Eagles begin their season this weekend with games against Rumson/Fair Haven and Scotch Plains/Fanwood before facing Hudson County rival St. Peter’s Prep on Monday.
On paper, the Soaring Eagles appear to have all the makings for a successful baseball season.
“I think we should be in the mix,” Benway said. “But I think we should be in the mix every year. It’s all about whether we can win the county. People say that the top teams are Prep and Memorial, maybe Bayonne. I’d like people to think Union City every year. I believe we should be in that mix every year.”
With the pitching the Soaring Eagles have, they should definitely be in the hunt this season…
– Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.