The idea that little Weehawken High School could have a baseball team that actually is among the final four left standing in the Ed Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament is beyond comprehension.
We’re talking Weehawken here. Yes, that Weehawken, with the views of Manhattan and the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Sure, there might be a Grand Prix auto race coming there next year and famed Hollywood actor/dancer Fred Astaire once lived there, but let’s be real here.
Weehawken among the top four baseball teams in Hudson County? There are some people who truly believe that Weehawken isn’t even part of Hudson County, considering that the school’s teams don’t participate in the county league, having called places like the old BCSL and the current NJIC home for almost three decades.
In fact, the Indians were so much of an afterthought that they were given the No. 11 seed by the Hudson County coaches seeding the baseball tournament.
“I didn’t know what it was based on,” Weehawken head coach Anthony Stratton said. “Maybe because we don’t play in Hudson County, I don’t know, but I thought it was a little unfair. I guess I can understand it, because people don’t realize that we do have talent.”
The overlooked Indians were determined to make sure that people took notice of them – in Hudson County, the county where they do indeed reside.
“No doubt about it, we took it as motivation,” Stratton said. “We really felt like we could beat anyone.”
So in the first round of the county tourney, the Indians were paired against Memorial, which has been the predominant baseball program in the county for decades. Although the Tigers may have lost a little of their luster with the passing of legendary head coach Tony Ferrainolo last October, it’s still Memorial, a Group IV power, taking on little old Weehawken.
“Memorial is Memorial,” Stratton said. “The school has such a tradition of baseball greatness that stands alone.”
Well, the Indians managed to knock off sixth-seeded Memorial in the opening round of the tournament to move on.
Up next stood North Bergen, the tourney’s No. 3 seed and one of the top teams in the county all season. The Bruins were once ranked among the state’s best and were considered one of the teams to beat in the tourney.
The upstart Indians were going to have to face the Bruins at Stan Newman Field (64th Street) under the lights on Saturday night.
“It’s not an easy place to play, but I thought the kids would be excited, because there’s nothing like playing under the lights,” Stratton said. “There was a great atmosphere for the game.”
Stratton also felt confident, because junior left-hander Sal Mendez, entrenched as one of the best hurlers in the area, was taking the mound for the Indians.
“I could tell before the game he was ready,” Stratton said. “He had that overall focus and determination. I don’t know if he knew North Bergen’s batters’ tendencies, but he was ready to face them. I don’t think he got caught up in the hype.”
It was also a battle of two close friends and classmates. Weehawken’s David Strandberg and North Bergen’s A.J. Gale are both students at High Tech High School and the two have been friends since they were toddlers. They have been teammates on other teams, but this time, they were facing each other in the county tourney.
The two pitchers – namely Mendez for Weehawken and Marco Hernandez for North Bergen – matched zeroes through the first five innings in a patented left-handed pitching duel.
In the top of the sixth, Weehawken catcher J.J. Pineda walked and Dante Cieri followed with an RBI double for the first run, breaking the scoreless tie. Miguel Montilla then had an RBI single that scored Cieri.
North Bergen countered with a run, but Mendez bore down and struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh inning to secure the improbable 2-1 win. The upstart Indians had shocked both Memorial and North Bergen in consecutive weeks to reach the Hudson County tourney semifinals.
It’s the first time that Weehawken has been this close to a Hudson County championship in baseball since 1960. That’s over a half of a century. Most of the current Indians’ parents weren’t even born yet.
There was a time when Weehawken used to compete with the Hudson County elite. The district drew from neighboring towns, especially Secaucus, back then. But once it became entrenched in the smaller BCSL, the days of competing with the big wigs in the county were gone. The HCIAA was considered the county champion. The schools that competed in the Bergen County-based BCSL were thought to be complete outsiders.
Stratton was asked if his players understood the enormity of the two wins.
“I understand it more, because I’ve been here all my life,” Stratton said. “I also coached at River Dell and I know the importance of a county tournament. In Bergen County, the county tournament is bigger than the states. But we’ve only been part of this Hudson County Tournament now for three years, so it’s a little hard for the kids to understand the history and tradition.”
Stratton told his players about the tradition en route to Stan Newman Field.
“On the way to North Bergen, I explained to them where they were going,” Stratton said. “I told them that they had a chance to do something that no Weehawken team had ever done. I told them what kind of game to expect and that they were representing our league, but more importantly, our town.”
They represented both well and got a huge win in the process.
“It has to be one of the biggest wins in the school’s history,” Stratton said.
Stratton was an assistant coach when the Indians lost in the 2004 state sectional title game to Becton Regional and was the head coach when the Indians lost again in the 2008 state sectional finale. That’s about it when it comes to big games and big wins. The win over the Bruins ranks right there.
The underdog Indians move on to the semifinals. They have another giant to slay, namely No. 2 seed St. Peter’s Prep. Bayonne and Marist will square off in the other semifinal.
It’s still hard to fathom that little, forgotten about Weehawken is one of the four teams still vying for a county crown.
“It’s great,” Stratton said. “We struggled out of the gate and we were 2-5 at one point. A lot of people thought we were done. But I knew we had something special. We entered the county tournament and I said, `Why not?’ No one thought this was possible, but we did.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.