Secaucus High School used to have a dominant baseball program. You can look it up.
Seriously, the Patriots were a perennial powerhouse. Led by former coach Tony Falco, they won the NJSIAA overall Group I state title in 1980 and were one win away from taking the Group II overall crown in 1983.
Secaucus is the lone Hudson County public school in the past 40 years to send two of its products to Major League Baseball. Jeff Bittiger, the star of that 1980 state championship team, and Mark Lukasiewicz both pitched in the big leagues. Another, Mike Mongiello, just missed the bigs, making it all the way to Class AAA.
Secaucus is a place with a strong, rich, storied baseball tradition, going all the way back to its always strong Little League teams. The Patriots won countless league titles in the old Bergen County Scholastic League-National Division. Need proof? Just count the number of banners that still hang in the school gym.
However, over the last decade or so, the winning ways dwindled on the high school level. For some reason, the days of dominance were gone.
But as the 2014 season approached, Secaucus head coach Keith Schneider knew that he had a special group.
“I actually thought that we could compete for the conference and had a chance to win the state sectional,” said Schneider, who was in his seventh season as head coach.
That’s because the team featured a pair of best friends who had played together since their Little League days.
“We have been close together forever,” said the Patriots’ standout senior shortstop Mike Dragone. “We’ve been teammates through Little League, Babe Ruth, everything. Playing baseball together built our friendship.”
“We knew that this was going to be our year,” said the Patriots’ workhorse left-handed pitcher Sean Reitz. “I knew that we were going to make a run. It’s our family against everyone else’s team.”
There’s another important item to know about the shortstop who also pitches from time to time. Mike Dragone was born deaf.
“I didn’t find out right away that I was deaf,” said Dragone, who hears now with the help of several surgeries, plus hearing aids. “I guess I was about two or three when my parents found out. They did whatever they could to get my hearing back.”
Of course, little kids can be cruel, because they simply don’t know better. So Dragone was the source of ridicule and nasty taunts when he was younger.
“Sure, kids made fun of me,” Dragone said. “Sure, it was tough, but I had friends who stood up for me,” Dragone said.
Friends like Reitz. The two were inseparable and determined to make their mark on the once-storied Secaucus baseball program.
“We found out once we started playing together, that we were pretty good,” Dragone said.
Because of his hearing handicap, Dragone had to work just a little harder to make that mark.
“Just because I’m deaf didn’t mean anything when it came to being a ballplayer,” Dragone said. “All that matters is what’s happening now.”
What’s happening now is nothing short of miraculous. Dragone is absolutely mashing the baseball and actually had a streak last week where he hit an incredible four home runs in four consecutive at-bats – two against Hoboken and then two against North 13th Street Tech of Newark.
Yes, all four went out, with the last, a mammoth blast to centerfield in Kane Stadium in Secaucus that traveled all the way to the New Jersey Turnpike.
“The last one he hit, he absolutely hammered it,” Schneider said.
“It was a bomb,” Reitz said.
Imagine that. Dragone hit four consecutive homers. It’s astounding even on the Little League level, never mind high school, never mind the first two rounds of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I state playoffs.
“I was actually surprised when someone told me he did it,” Schneider said.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Dragone said. “I just was busy rounding the bases. When I was told it was four in a row, I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe that I hit four straight.”
But it was his final two at-bats in an 18-3 trouncing of Hoboken, then the first two at-bats in a 9-3 win over North 13th Street Tech.
“I never expected to hit one homer and never expected to hit four in a row,” said Dragone, who now has seven homers on the season.
His best friend has also played a huge role. Reitz has an incredible 8-3 pitching record, including the team’s 10-1 win over Roselle Park in the sectional semifinals last Tuesday.
And now, this improbable close-knit bunch is one win away from creating another slice of history and adding another banner to the wall. The Patriots were slated to travel to face top-seeded Dayton Regional of Springfield on Friday for the North 2, Group I state sectional championship.
“His only losses were to Lyndhurst, Ridgefield and Memorial in the Hudson County Tournament,” Schneider said of Reitz. “He’s been our workhorse. He keeps the ball down. He’s not overpowering, but he has three pitches and keeps all of them down. He places the ball where he wants it to be. He pitches quick and works quick.”
“It’s been crazy and so much fun,” Reitz said. “We weren’t given a shot by anyone to do anything. No one gives us any respect. It’s ridiculous.”
The Patriots are really like the Rodney Dangerfield of local baseball, getting no respect, no respect at all.
“We’re a Hudson County team playing in a Bergen County league,” Schneider said. “It seems like the Bergen County teams don’t respect us and then we get to the Hudson County Tournament, we always get a bad draw. So it’s a little tough to respect from the area.”
Well, the respect should be there now, considering that the Patriots are the lone Hudson County public school left standing in the state playoffs. Only Hudson Catholic, St. Peter’s Prep and county champ Marist are left playing in the Non-Public divisions.
“We get respect from the town,” said Schneider, who credits assistant coach Tom Reynolds for his diligence and dedication. “We get respect and support from the parents. We have parents who now once played for Secaucus, so that helps.”
What also helps is the team’s camaraderie. Schneider has assistant coaches in Kyle Schlemm and Neil Czechowski who once played for him. The players, like the two leaders, are very close.
“This team might not be the most talented team we’ve had,” Schneider said. “But it’s the best fit. It’s a different type of team. It’s a very down to earth team. They know their roles. They know Reitz is going to get the ball. They have fun at practice, fun at games. They’re a different type of team. It’s hard to explain. They all hang out together all the time. They all get along. It’s one of the most fun groups we’ve had.”
So the Patriots, who won 10 games two years ago and 12 last year, now have a 17-8 record heading to face Dayton. There are players like Zach Camacho, the third baseman, who has been a fixture at the hot corner for three years. The team’s vocal leader is senior right fielder Pat Collins. Left fielder John Jernstendt has been a three-year standout. Sophomore Anthony Ratti has fit in nicely as a complimentary pitcher.
Regardless of what happens against Dayton, it has been a season to remember, a return to glory for Secaucus baseball, thanks to two buddies leading the way, one who had to overcome a huge obstacle.
“I think this has to give us a lot of respect,” Reitz said. “We’ll get a lot of respect if we win it all.”
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Dragone said. “I’m really happy. I just want to keep playing with my teammates.”
How’s this for closeness? Reitz and Dragone are headed to Union County College in the fall to play baseball. They are Secaucus, true red, white and blue, from high school and beyond. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a state title with them to college.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.