Baz Gutierrez is born and bred North Bergen. A 2007 graduate of Hudson Catholic, Gutierrez later played college baseball at Kean University and later New Jersey City University. In recent years, he’s been an assistant coach at his high school alma mater, Hudson Catholic, working under head coach Alberto Vasquez.
But during the summer months, Gutierrez turns his attention toward coaching and teaching the younger players, namely the 11-and-12-year-old All-Star team from North Bergen South Little League.
Gutierrez began coaching Little League last year and took the North Bergen South 11-year-old All-Stars to the District 7 title. He returned to coach a team this summer that resembles last year’s group almost to a tee.
“We only lost two guys from that team, so I knew we had a pretty talented team coming back,” Gutierrez said. “I love coaching them. They give me enthusiasm. I look forward to being with them, because they practice the way they play. They make things so much easier for me.”
However, Gutierrez knew that his team faced an uphill battle in the District 7 tournament, considering that West New York American had captured the last three consecutive District 7 titles.
North Bergen South won the District 7 banner in 2008, en route to participating in the overall state championship. Since then, the local All-Star tournament has been dominated by WNY American.
So last Saturday, Gutierrez’s North Bergen South team faced the three-time defending champions in the championship game of the winners’ bracket. The winner would have the golden opportunity to take a few days off and await the team that emerged from the losers’ bracket.
“Our kids knew that team well,” Gutierrez said. “The kids were up for it. They knew it was one of the most important games of their lives, that if they lost, they had to come back and win three games in a row, which obviously isn’t easy.”
Plus, the North Bergen team had to get past WNY American’s towering right-hander Harold Segismundo, whom Gutierrez called “the hardest throwing 12-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
Segismundo is an imposing Little League figure, a kid who stands almost 6-feet at age 12 and throws darts.
“We knew that we were going to face their ace,” Gutierrez said. “We knew it was going to be a battle.”
So to get ready to face Segismundo, Gutierrez had his team face live pitching from assistant coach C.J. Acosta, a former North Bergen High School player.
“He threw harder than most Little Leaguers and helped them to get their timing down,” Gutierrez said. “The kids knew what they were going to see in the game.”
The strategy worked, because North Bergen South erupted for five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning, securing a 9-6 come-from-behind victory to advance to the championship round.
The title round was slated to begin Friday night at Jackie Robinson Little League field in Jersey City.
North Bergen South has been blessed with some quality starting pitching in the tournament, winning all five of its games. Right-hander Nick Francisco showed a ton of poise in the win over WNY American, mixing up his pitches well while sticking out his tongue a bit when throwing a pitch.
“His best asset is his control,” Gutierrez said of Francisco. “He has the best control on our staff. He’s very confident on the mound. He has a change-up and a cutter to go with his fastball to keep batters off balance.”
Andrew Troya is a left-hander with great stuff. Troya is also an excellent defensive first baseman. He made a diving catch of a foul pop-up Saturday that would have made Keith Hernandez ealous.
Nick Gonzalez and Angel Gonzalez (no relation) are two other pitchers that Gutierrez can count on. Nick Gonzalez got out of a bases-loaded jam late in Saturday’s game with a strikeout.
The catcher is Eddie Malpica, who also happens to be Gutierrez’s godson.
“He’s our No. 3 hitter and he’s a clutch hitter,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a big plus to have a reliable catcher. He makes the right calls and he’s confident. He’s like a wall defensively and doesn’t let anything get by him.”
Troya handles first base with style and flair. Jordan Espinal is the second baseman, with Angel Gonzalez playing shortstop with Francisco on the mound. Francisco plays there when he’s not pitching. Nick Gonzalez is the third baseman.
The left field duties are shared by Bryan Guzman and Xavier Reyes.
Bryan Morales, the team’s leadoff hitter, is the centerfielder. Morales has an absolute cannon for an arm.
“He’s also hit two homers in the tournament,” Gutierrez said.
Zuriel Turcios and Luis Bermudez share time in right field.
Other than Gutierrez and Acosta, the team is assisted by coach Randy Singh.
Needless to say, it’s an exciting time for the kids from North Bergen South, who stand on the threshold of taking down a three-time defending champion and winning the District 7 banner. It’s there for the taking.
“The kids are pretty confident,” Gutierrez said. “I really think they can go a long way. First things first. We have to take it one inning at a time. But this is a team that has the tools to excel.”
And the ability to bring a District 7 championship banner back to North Bergen.
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