ATHLETE OF THE WEEK

McNair’s Villanueva leads Cougars’ surprising rise

McNair Academic junior pitcher Mariah Villanueva
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McNair Academic junior pitcher Mariah Villanueva

Mariah Villanueva is a catcher by trade.

It’s the position Villanueva has owned since she first started playing softball as a young girl. It’s the place where she has fine tuned her skills and made her mark on every single team she played for, including the Roberto Clemente Little League Senior team that won both the District 7 and Region 2 championships in 2017, helping the team reach the state championships.

But when McNair Academic’s softball team needed a pitcher, then Villanueva graciously volunteered to head to the mound instead of her usual spot behind the plate.

“It was definitely difficult,” said Villanueva, a junior at McNair. “The team needed me, so I made my priority becoming a pitcher. I knew I had to step up.”

It was a move that John Hughes definitely accepted, especially since Hughes was taking over the head coaching duties at McNair Academic after veteran coach Vahon McCullers retired at the end of last season. Hughes, a veteran assistant coach, made the move up to take over in McCullers’ absence.

“She was my pitcher,” Hughes said without a hesitation. “She wanted the job. That just shows her selflessness. She’s about as unflappable of an athlete I’ve ever coached.”

Not only has Hughes been part of the McNair coaching family, but he has also spent time coaching the Bayonne High School hockey team.

“Mariah has the perfect disposition,” Hughes said. “She doesn’t get upset with the other players on the team. In fact, she acts as a mentor to the younger players. And we have a pretty young team. She has this calm demeanor about her. It’s really amazing to have that kind of composure at such a young age.”

Perhaps it helps that Villanueva has her younger sister, Mya, as her catcher. Mya Villanueva has also changed positions for the good of the Cougars. The younger Villanueva is a third baseman and outfielder when she plays travel softball in the summer months.

The Villanueva sisters became involved in softball because of their father, Gabriel, who was a baseball player during his high school days at North Bergen.

“My sister, my Dad and I played a lot together growing up,” Mariah Villanueva said. “It definitely helped me become a better player.”

So during the offseason, Mariah Villanueva spent a lot of time throwing to her sister.

“It definitely helped that my sister is my catcher,” Mariah Villanueva said. “It’s almost like she can read my mind. I’m not going to overpower anyone. I just try hard to outsmart the opposing batter. I want to out think them.”

Hughes likes Villanueva’s approach as a pitcher.

“She just throws and allows the fielders to catch the ball,” Hughes said. “She has faith in her fielders and I think that makes her a better pitcher.”

As the 2019 season began recently, Villanueva was poised for her new challenge as being her team’s ace pitcher.

“I think just throwing more and working out with my sister really helped me,” Villanueva said. “I feel like I’m throwing harder.”

The Cougars’ season started with two victories over University Charter and Marist, but then the big challenge arrived. There was a showdown against North Bergen, the defending Hudson County Tournament champion.

“I had a little bit of nerves and I was also excited,” Villanueva said. “I was nervous because of the potential they had. They won the county championship last year. But I was excited for the challenge. I wanted to see how we matched up with the best team in the county.”

Villanueva led the Cougars to a surprising 15-7 victory over the Bruins, the first time ever that McNair Academic defeated North Bergen in softball. Not only did Villanueva limit the Bruins to just seven hits, but she also recorded three hits, three runs scored and three RBI at the plate.

For her efforts, Villanueva has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. She is the first honoree of the spring scholastic sports season that began recently.

Villanueva also struck out 15 in the victory over Marist and had seven strikeouts in a two-hit shutout of St. Dominic Academy. She also struck out 11 in a victory over Snyder, pushing the Cougars’ record to an impressive 5-0 in the early going.

“I think this has showed me what I am capable of doing as a pitcher,” Villanueva said. “It has showed me what I can do.”

Villanueva was asked what it felt like to knock off perennial power North Bergen.

“It definitely felt like we had just won the county championship,” Villanueva said. “Even though it was only the third game of the season, it really felt great. It was a good start to our season, especially beating North Bergen. It was definitely a big win for us.”

“We definitely needed to know who we were and where we stood,” Hughes said. “Beating a great team like North Bergen gives these girls some great recognition that they deserve. I think after a win like this that we’re going to get even better.”

Villanueva said that her laid back attitude helps her remain focused as a pitcher.

“That’s just my mentality,” Villanueva said. “If we make a mistake, I know I have to get ready for the next batter. I can’t go flat and give up a hit. It’s not what we need. I just work as hard as I can every game.”

While Villanueva said she has never taken a pitching lesson, she has worked on her hitting with a private instructor.

“We go over little things that could make me better,” Villanueva said. “I just have the same approach every at-bat. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to perform. I try not to think too much about what I’m doing.”

In the early going, Villanueva has delivered seven hits, eight RBI, 10 runs scored and a .438 batting average.

“She’s our No. 2 hitter in the lineup,” Hughes said. “She’s more of a line drive hitter. But she’s definitely a good hitter.”

Villanueva said that she has been inspired by her summer teammate Jaylene Sierra, who earned a softball scholarship to Coppin State in Maryland and is currently playing there.

“Jaylene is an amazing player,” Villanueva said. “I’ve learned so much from her. We’re really good friends. In the summer, I catch for her. She has helped me as a pitcher, teaching me where to throw the ball. She reminds me that the key to pitching is location, that you have to get the batter to hit your pitch.”

Although she’s only a junior, Villanueva is already thinking about college and playing college softball in the future. She would love to major in sports medicine or physical therapy.

“She’s definitely going to play in college,” Hughes said. “I know that’s something she’d love to do. I have no doubt she’ll play wherever she goes.”

And whatever school goes after Villanueva next year, they’ll get a player who can both pitch and catch, just not at the same time. But the versatility is priceless. So are wins against the defending county champ. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com