It’s safe to say that when the former Emerson and Union Hill High Schools merged to form one Union City High School this scholastic year, there wasn’t exactly a smooth transition in the other two major sports, namely football and basketball.
There were some contentious moments, because two coaching staffs had to become one and the former head coaches who were left out in the cold didn’t exactly enjoy being shown the door.
So the transition in football and basketball took a little time and in some cases, that uneasiness led to some disarray on the respective fields of play.
However, that’s not the case with the new Union City baseball program, featuring former Emerson head coach Frank Clark and former Union Hill head coach Chipper Benway.
While Clark has the title of head coach for the new Union City Soaring Eagles, make no bones about the fact that this is a union of two excellent baseball minds. These are two guys who are on the same page together and are willing to work diligently to reach the same common goal.
“Having Chip with me has made it a seamless transition,” Clark said. “We had lengthy decisions in the off-season to determine what we were going to do this season and it was apparent that the two of us are very similar personalities. We don’t have big egos. We work well together. So the transition has been very easy and ended up going very well.”
Clark said that both he and Benway are on the same wave length time and time again.
“It’s funny,” Clark said. “Chip will have a thought and I’ll say, ‘Don’t tell me; I’ll tell you what you’re thinking.’ We’ve been on the same page on a lot of things. The kids have seen that from Day One and it’s been easy.”
Having the coaches united certainly helped the merging of the two programs. The players didn’t have to worry about choosing sides. They didn’t have to be concerned of being a former Union Hill player for Benway and a former Bulldog for Clark. They were a melded bunch from the outset.
“The kids have been great,” Clark said. “They have been wonderful with the transition. You would think that they had been together for years. I think playing together in the summer leagues really helped them to get ready to be together. They’ve come together nicely as a group.”
So basically, you’ve taken a successful Emerson program and put it together with a highly competitive Union Hill program. You’ve now included the two head coaches and have them working together as one. Maybe this is what the powers-that-be had in mind when they decided to merge the two schools, because this group of Soaring Eagles has been Team United, a true union in Union City, from the very first moment.
“I’m very excited about this club, especially the youth,” Clark said. “We have four seniors who contribute and do their part, but the rest of the club is filled with youngsters. It only bodes well for the future. We have a large number of sophomores and freshmen who are in it for the long haul.”
That’s another factor that benefits this program this season – numbers. There is healthy competition at many of the different starting positions and gives Clark the benefit of having a solid bench for the first time in his coaching career.
“We do have numbers,” Clark said. “We never had numbers before.”
For example, the Soaring Eagles can use any of eight different pitchers this season. That’s right – eight. Not many other Hudson County teams have that kind of pitching depth.
Leading the way is senior Franklin Cruz, who was the top hurler for Union Hill last spring. Junior Jefry Castro, the younger brother of former Emerson All-Area standout Yoken, is a right-hander with a lot of promise. Senior Richie Velez, who is the Eagles’ starting catcher, is also a pitcher.
Junior Kevin Luna, sophomores Yeudy Ventura, Antonio Borges (the team’s lone left-hander) and Jose Matias and freshman Juan Bautista will all get to see mound action this spring.
“We have a lot of young arms and it all has to do with their maturity,” Clark said. “That’s what we keep preaching to them every day. Our success is predicated on how quickly they grow up. When the lights are on and they’re facing teams like [St. Peter’s] Prep, Memorial and Bayonne and how they react to facing them, then we’ll see how they respond.”
Velez is the team’s catcher and has been a three-year starter for Clark. Senior Vimar Amaro, who was the starter last year at Union Hill, gives the Eagles depth at backstop.
First base duties are being shared between sophomore Matias (who has a ton of potential) and senior Taylor Perez.
Sophomore Willie Tavarez is the team’s second baseman, with Luna playing shortstop.
The player to watch may be Bautista, the talented freshman who has a chance to be one of the all-time greats to come out of Union City.
“I don’t want the kid to get a big head, but he can play,” Clark said. “He has great baseball savvy and knows the ins and outs.”
Junior Kevin Caraballo will handle the utility role and fill in at all the infield positions when one of them ends up pitching.
Left field is being shared by senior Anabil Fresse and Borges. Junior Jeremy Rivera and senior James Rodriguez are battling for playing time in centerfield and right field is being shared by sophomores Ventura and Matias.
It definitely has the makings of being a successful first season, a truly civil union in Union City.
“I’m happy and excited with the way it has turned out,” Clark said. “Now, it all depends on how we play on the field.”
Let the spring season begin.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.