The West New York Junior American Legion team (ages 15 and 16) finished first in the Bergen-Passaic American Legion Baseball League, posting a 15-2 record during the regular season. They now advance to the state tournament, which will be held this weekend in Denville and Madison in Morris County.
The WNY Junior Legion, coached by Lou Nagurka and former Memorial and Seton Hall standout Santiago Chi, featured a team mainly comprised of players from Memorial High School.
"The Junior Legion team is all West New York kids and all Memorial kids," said Lou Nagurka, who has dedicated the last 28 years of his life to youth baseball in his native West New York. "Without a doubt, I knew that we had a very talented team and that we would have a very good summer."
Lou Nagurka figured that the team would do very well, even though his two top pitchers, All-Area performer Robinson Polanco and Jesus Castano, couldn't pitch for the team. Polanco has been battling a shoulder ailment since the end of the high school season and has been relegated to strictly playing the outfield for the team. The multi-talented Castano plays only shortstop for the Junior Legion, because he's one of the top pitchers for the Senior Legion team.
Despite not having the services of Polanco and Castano on the mound, the WNY Junior Legion team has fared well, thanks to the pitching performances of Steve Leon, a right-hander who will be a junior at Memorial in the fall. Leon has an 8-0 record for the WNY Junior Legion.
"Steve has emerged as our top pitcher and has done very well for us," Lou Nagurka said. "He has a good fastball and an overhand curve that works like a change-up and it's hard to hit. He's really been a pleasant surprise."
Fellow righty Andy Ortiz has posted a 6-1 record for the Junior Legion. Ramon Feliz, who just completed a brilliant freshman year at Memorial, has the potential to be a truly great player.
"He's going to be outstanding," Lou Nagurka said.
Frank Morales is another pitcher for the WNY Junior Legion.
The catching duties are handled by Jorge Pardo, with slugger Omar Garcia (seven homers this summer) manning first base. Chris Cabrera is the second baseman, with the slick-fielding Castano holding fort at shortstop. Jason Lopez, who has been a veteran of several winning teams in West New York over the years, is the team's third sacker.
Polanco, who didn't bat all year for the Memorial varsity, is hitting better than .400 as the everyday centerfielder. Leon is the regular left fielder and Eric Alfonso mans right field. David Hernandez and John Cuevas are utility players who fill in from time to time.
Lou Nagurka said that this team has excelled because many of them played Junior Legion last year, so they were ready for the challenge.
"Most of these kids have a year under their belts, so they know what to expect," Lou Nagurka said. "The competition is tough, but the players are looking forward to the states."
And when these players are ready to make the step up to the Senior American Legion (17 and 18-year-olds), then they can replace the current crop of talented players, which has also won its respective Bergen-Passaic American Legion league championship and will head to this weekend's District 5 tournament at Breslin Field in Lyndhurst.
The West New York Senior American Legion team won the best-of-three championship series last weekend, defeating River Vale in two straight games, 6-4 in eight innings and clinching the crown with a 12-5 decision at Miller Stadium last Saturday. It marked the second straight year that West New York won that league's championship.
Another Nagurka brother, Tim, is the head coach of the Senior Legion team, which reads like a litany of the Hudson Reporter All-Area High School Baseball Team.
Five members of the All-Area team grace the WNY Senior Legion team that also went 15-2 this summer, namely Gil Zayas and Frank Prieto, Jr. of St. Joseph of the Palisades and Danny Lopez, Kevin Kallert and Chris Jodice of Weehawken.
"We've been able to get some kids from quality high school programs," Tim Nagurka said. "Not only do they come from good programs, but they're all great kids. They've all come up big for us."
The pitching staff is headed by Castano, who has been doing double duty, playing for both Legion teams. Castano owns a 7-0 record on the mound for the Senior Legion team, while Kallert, headed to St. Peter's College in the fall, owns a 5-1 record. Kallert was the winning pitcher in the series clincher last Saturday.
Jodice, Zayas and Yuniel Misa have also pitched for the team. Misa was a member of the Memorial High School pitching staff last spring.
The catcher is Gus Lopez, while first base is a combination of Kallert, Zayas and Jason Lopez, who is also doing double duty, playing for both teams.
Second base is manned by Feliz, another performer for both teams.
"When all the college coaches come, he's the first one they ask about," Tim Nagurka said.
Castano and Jodice share shortstop duties, while Kallert and Zayas alternate at third.
The outfield is manned by Alfredo Cadiz, Paul Sanchez and Prieto, as well as North Bergen High School standout Robert Mateo.
There is only one possible problem that could hurt the West New York teams over the weekend, especially with the handful of kids who are playing for both squads. The schedule has not been set for the tourneys. It is only known that the Senior Legion team plays at Breslin Field in Lyndhurst Saturday night against the yet-to-be-determined Essex County champion.
"The kids are giving their commitment to the Senior Legion team," Tim Nagurka said. "We're hoping that the schedules will be helpful and that they're able to play for both, but the priority is with the Senior Legion team. The competition is better and we want the kids to get better. We have the gas tank filled in the car to go back and forth between Denville and Lyndhurst."
However, it shows that the level of commitment to baseball excellence doesn't stop at the Little League level.
"I guess it starts at the bottom with the Little Leagues, then goes on to Babe Ruth, Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle and just keeps going," Tim Nagurka said. "We want to be a good feeder program for the high school. We're also fortunate to get great support from Mayor Albio Sires and (recreation director) Dennis DeSocio, who give us whatever we need. The proof is on the field. It's a very good baseball town."
Make that "Baseballtown, USA."
The EXTRA INNINGS feature focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area. If you have any noteworthy information to contribute to the EXTRA INNINGS, feel free to contact Jim Hague by voice mail at 201-798-7800, ext. 751, by general mail at 1400 Washington Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, or via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. Please include a telephone contact name and number, in order to secure further information for a possible story.