"When we won as 11s last year, we didn't get a chance to see everyone," Fernandez said. "I was worried that our kids might not have been as experienced as others in the tournament and that other teams might have more experience. That was my main concern."
Plus, the District 7 12-year-old tournament has expanded in recent years to 16 teams, which means that there are more games and more obstacles to overcome.
"I knew it was going to be much harder than the last two years," Fernandez said. "I had a good sense that we had a good team, but winning the championship again was going to be harder, simply because there were more teams and the kids are much better players as they get older."
Fernandez's woes were eventually determined to be unfounded, because his team rolled through the District 7 tourney without a blemish, winning five straight games, although they had to endure two thrilling, nail-biting contests with West New York American to earn the title.
After soundly defeating Secaucus in the winners' bracket semifinals and also knocking off the neighboring North Bergen North in the quarterfinals, the kids from North Bergen South had to defeat WNY American twice in order to claim their third straight District 7 banner.
They won the first contest, 6-5, last Wednesday, thanks to a three-run walk-off homer from shortstop A.J. Gale.
Two days later, it was more late inning heroics and heart-stopping action, as the kids from North Bergen South had another rally, winning this time, 8-7, to clinch the title. Fernandez' son, centerfielder Andy, had a three-run homer and four RBI total in the District clinching victory.
"It's really remarkable," Fernandez said. "These kids won as 10s and 11s and now again as 12s. It's a 'three-peat.' I'm very proud of these kids. It's very prestigious for them to win Little League championships like this, three in a row. I know everyone takes pride in it. With 16 teams and to come away undefeated, it's a nice accomplishment."
One of the major reasons why the North Bergen South All-Stars were so successful was their pitching depth. Manager Fernandez can call upon any of six different kids (from the 11-member roster) to take the mound. With Little League Baseball implementing stricter pitch-count rules (a maximum of 85 pitches in a single game), pitching depth is essential for a team to succeed.
"We're really happy with our pitching," Fernandez said.
Leading the pitching staff is 11-year-old right-hander Jeremy Cerda, who joined the All-Star program this season. When Cerda isn't pitching, he plays second base and carries a good bat, hitting two homers during the course of the District 7 tourney.
"He's our No. 1 pitcher and that's something, because he's only 11," Fernandez said.
Gale is the team's closer, a resident Mariano Rivera, when he's not playing shortstop. He's brought in to shut the door. Gale has also delivered two homers, including the clutch walk-off blast, during the tourney.
While we're on the subject of Yankee All-Stars, North Bergen South is blessed to have the services of Alex Rodriguez on its roster, also known as "A-Rod," although this one plays right field and pitches and has never met Madonna.
"He likes being called 'A-Rod,'" Fernandez said. "Everyone calls him 'A-Rod' and he loves it. He's a big kid who hits the ball far. He's very intimidating when he's on the mound because he's so tall on the mound. He's also our hardest thrower."
Alex Lopez is the team's only left-handed pitcher who also throws hard. David Baitza and James Rangel round out the pitching staff.
"David is a very crafty pitcher and James could throw, but we don't use him that often," Fernandez said.
This is also a team full of nicknames. When lefty Lopez takes the mound, he's known as "The Big Unit." When Rangel performs, he's called "The Big Show."
The catching duties are shared by P.J. Cardone and Anthony Dabal, the younger brother of former North Bergen High School wrestling sensation Bobby Dabal. Anthony Dabal is coming off a hand injury and has just begun to contribute. Cardone is a pesky player and hitter, according to Fernandez.
Rangel is the slugging first baseman and cleanup hitter. He has also hit two homers during the District tourney.
"He has power to all fields," Fernandez said.
Cerda and Gale make up the second base/shortstop combination, with Fernie Jimenez and Nicky Flores sharing duties at third base.
"Fernie is a good line-drive hitter who is a vacuum cleaner at third base," Fernandez said. "Nicky Flores is a good power hitter."
Lopez is the team's regular left fielder. Fernandez said that the speedy Lopez is always on base.
The younger Fernandez, Andy, is the centerfielder and leadoff hitter.
"He's very consistent and gets us going all the time," the manager said of his son. The team's resident A-Rod is the right fielder. He also has two homers in the tourney - namely two grand slams in the same inning in the 15-8 win over North Bergen North.
The team misses the services of Luigi Guerrero, who was on the team as a 10-year-old and again last year, but is out for the season recovering from an illness.
"He played a big role for us the last two years and we miss him a lot," Fernandez said. "We hope he has a speedy recovery."
After winning the District 7 title, the North Bergen South All-Stars now move on to the Section 2 tournament that features four other District champions. North Bergen was slated to face Hasbrouck Heights in the opening round in the tourney that is being played in Nutley.
Needless to say, the kids from North Bergen are excited with the chances to keep their baseball season alive and excited to have added a "three-peat" of District 7 titles. It's quite an accomplishment for a program that just returned to Little League baseball four years ago...
The Jersey City Recreation RBI softball team that was featured in last week's edition of EXTRA INNINGS captured the Eastern Regional championship last weekend and will now move to the World Series in Los Angeles Aug. 12-17. The team will travel all expenses paid, courtesy of Major League Baseball. The Jersey City Dragonflies defeated Boston, 15-0, on a perfect game by Carla Arismendi and then defeated New York twice by similar scores of 5-1, with Raquel Roder
The EXTRA INNINGS weekly feature focuses on the best stories that come from local baseball and softball leagues throughout the area.
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