Chipper Benway spent three years as the head baseball coach at Union Hill High School, then joined forces with former Emerson coach Frank Clark last season as the coaching tandem with the new and unified Union City High School.
Now, as Clark has left to pursue other administrative opportunities, Benway has been given the chance to be the head coach of the Soaring Eagles, taking over a program that will begin play in a new league (the North Jersey Tri-County Conference) and on a new field (the unique rooftop stadium on top of the new Union City High School).
Needless to say, it’s a season of newness for the Soaring Eagles.
“When you’re an assistant coach in the right situation, like the one I had last year, you don’t have to worry about all the other things, like eligibility, scheduling, uniforms,” said Benway, the former Hoboken High standout and also the former football coach/athletic director at Hudson Catholic. “I really enjoyed being an assistant coach. We worked well together. I assumed the defensive role, a lot like what I did in football. I called the pitches and installed the defensive plays. With that in mind, I much rather be the head coach and I’m glad to get this opportunity.”
Benway inherits a team that was 15-8 a year ago, but slumped a little toward the end of the season, losing in the HCIAA Coviello semifinals to Memorial and the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV tournament to Belleville as the top seed.
The Soaring Eagles welcome back a talented, veteran squad, but suffered a huge loss when talented freshman third baseman/pitcher Juan Bautista, a member of The Hudson Reporter All-Area team a year ago, left school and went back to his native Dominican Republic to pursue a professional career.
“I truly believe that if he was still here, we’d be a front runner,” Benway said. “But he’s not, so we’re trying not to dwell on it. We’re looking for the others to pick up the slack.”
Leading the pitching staff is senior right-hander Jefry Castro, who is the younger brother of former Emerson All-Area standout Yoken Castro.
Jefry Castro won four games last year on the mound and Benway is looking for bigger and better things this season.
“We expect Jefry to be our No. 1 pitcher,” Benway said. “He’s a bulldog on the mound. He eats up innings and gives you quality innings.”
Senior Victor Lebron is another righty who will see plenty of action on the mound.
“I’m looking for big things from him,” Benway said.
Junior Jose Matias, who pitched a no-hitter last season, is another returnee.
“He’s a solid performer and a good hitter,” Benway said.
Senior Daurys Batista is another right-handed pitcher. Batista pitched on the junior varsity level last year.
Benway also has two junior left-handed hurlers to call upon in Antonio Borges and Joseph Fernandez. There aren’t a lot of teams in the county that have one lefty, while Union City has two. It should be an advantage for the Soaring Eagles.
Senior Kevin Luna, who earned All-Area honors last year as a utility player, is moving from shortstop, where he played last year, to behind the plate.
“He was a catcher prior to high school,” Benway said. “He also caught a good deal over the summer, so he’s ready for it.”
Luna will get help behind the plate from junior Dan Lopez.
Matias will play first base most of the time when he’s not pitching. The second baseman is junior Willie Tavares, with Lebron, Tavares, and sophomore Javier Estevez sharing the middle infield duties.
“Estevez has had some spring,” Benway said. “He’s been very good and I have a lot of high hopes for him.”
The third baseman is senior Kevin Caraballo, who Benway feels is the best third baseman in the county.
Borges is the left fielder, with senior Jeremy Rivera in center and junior Yeudy Ventura in right. All three saw significant time in the Soaring Eagles’ outfield last season.
Benway has two familiar faces as assistant coaches in former St. Peter’s Prep standout and assistant coach Nick Urbanovich and former Memorial pitcher Steve Schlitzer.
The Soaring Eagles were scheduled to open their season against Kearny, weather permitting, on Thursday and then will head to the Delran Tournament over the weekend.
“We’re facing some quality programs this year,” said Benway, whose team will also face Morris County powers Delbarton and Roxbury later in the season. “We’re trying to pick up on the same mentality we had last season. We have a staff that can compete with anyone. We’re going to try and pride ourselves on quality pitching. We have at least five guys who can keep us in games and in this county, you have to have enough arms to keep you in games. Our attitude is different this year. We’re going to be tougher.”
And then there’s the novelty of playing on the roof. The first home game is next Thursday against neighboring rival Memorial.
“I think the field itself is going to lend to some difficult times for anyone who comes up to the roof to play us,” Benway said. “But we will have a home field. We haven’t had that in a while. Sure, the sun can be tough up there and so can the wind, but it’s ours.”
It certainly will lead to some interesting moments and times this season for the Union City baseball program.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.