Last April, the expectations weren’t so high for the Memorial High School baseball team. As crazy as it may seem, the Tigers were considered an afterthought in the HCIAA Coviello configuration. There were others that were thought to be the frontrunners. Even though they have made a history of being perennial contenders, the Tigers were perceived to be not as strong as others like Hudson Catholic, St. Peter’s Prep and Bayonne.
Well, guess again. The Tigers surprised a lot of people by winning the HCIAA Coviello title for the umpteenth time in legendary head coach Tony Ferrainolo’s career.
Now, as the 2009 season throws out the first pitch this week, the situation is much different. The Tigers are considered the favorites. There will be no sneaking up on anyone this time around.
“I’d much rather have it the other way, with us being the underdog,” Ferrainolo said. “No one was counting on us last year and that was fine. Now, everyone will be coming after us. It’s a good way to motivate the kids, telling them that teams will be gunning for us. We’ve earned that respect by winning the county. Now, we have to keep it up. I think the kids realize that. They hear it every day that their team is considered a top team and they want to keep it that way.”
One of the main reasons why the Tigers have to be considered a favorite this season is the return of senior pitcher Michael Kuzirian, who was the Hudson Reporter’s Most Valuable Player last year.
The diminutive Kuzirian was a giant on the mound, posting a 10-2 record with a 2.47 ERA, winning seven of his final eight starts, including wins over Bayonne in the HCIAA title game and wins over Livingston and Paterson Eastside in the NJSIAA Group IV playoffs.
“He was a little behind when we started practices, because he didn’t play much in the off-season,” Ferrainolo said of his ace Kuzirian, who also plays soccer and basketball at Memorial. “But he’s starting to come around and I think he’s going to have a big season.”
Kuzirian will now play shortstop when he doesn’t pitch. He batted .303 last year with 19 stolen bases as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter.
Another key returning pitcher is senior Osiris Garcia, who won five games on the mound for the Tigers last year.
“He gives us a good 1-2 punch on the mound with Michael,” Ferrainolo said.
Another quality pitcher is junior left-hander Ariel Soriano, who won two games last year and has the potential to be the best Tiger lefty since former Reporter Pitcher of the Year Robinson Polanco (currently pitching at Georgia State University).
“He’s coming along very well,” Ferrainolo said. “He could be our sleeper.”
Senior Jose Zaldana, who is a standout centerfielder, will also see time on the mound, where he pitched in relief last year. Zaldana hit .388 with two homers and 27 RBI last season.
Sophomore Jose Toribio will also see time on the mound when he’s not either in the outfield or at second base.
“Jose throws real hard and he’s also going to be the shortstop when Michael is pitching,” Ferrainolo said. “It gives us a nice, deep pitching staff.”
Sophomore Brian Vizcaino, who will also see time in the infield, will also pitch some innings for the Tigers.
Senior Juan Pena is the starting catcher. Pena takes over for two-time All-Area catcher Abel Blanco, currently at St. Peter’s College.
“Juan was the back-up to Abel the last two years and now gets the chance to play regularly,” Ferrainolo said.
Soriano will see most of the action at first base. Ferrainolo likes the way he hits the ball. Toribio will get the bulk of the play at second base with Kuzirian at short when not on the mound.
The third baseman is freshman Bryan Cuevas, who has the potential to be one of the best Memorial players ever. Cuevas has been earmarked for stardom since Little League and his coming of age may begin this season.
“He definitely can play,” Ferrainolo said. “He’s the type of kid who could play anywhere. He has already shown that he can put the bat on the ball and he’s going to get better down the line.”
Senior Rubiel Almonte will be the left fielder. He was the team’s designated hitter for most of last season, when he batted .330 with 17 RBI. Zaldana moves to centerfield and junior Sammy Molina becomes the regular right fielder. Freshman Felipe Contreras will see time at both designated hitter and catcher.
The Tigers waste no time in seeing what they have this season, facing perennial powers Bayonne and Hudson Catholic in the first two regular season games.
“It gets the kids up to play right away,” Ferrainolo said.
They have no choice. The Tigers are the preseason favorites in the HCIAA Coviello race. No dancing around that fact this time around. – Jim Hague Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.