Bello, with strong Jersey City ties, makes Team USA 17U baseball squad; North Bergen’s Willis transfers to UConn; remembering Wilson, Sharkey

Mike Bello (left) was selected to the Team USA 17-and-under squad, making his father, Jersey City native and former Marist player and coach Vinnie Bello (right) very proud.
Mike Bello (left) was selected to the Team USA 17-and-under squad, making his father, Jersey City native and former Marist player and coach Vinnie Bello (right) very proud.

A little over a year ago, the Bello family of Jersey City was devastated by the murder of patriarch Tony Bello, the long-time baseball and football coach who was tragically stabbed to death in Pershing Field last April.

Now, the family has something to celebrate, as Mike Bello, the murdered man’s grandson, has been selected to the Team USA 17-and-under national baseball team.

Mike Bello, who will be a junior at Pope John High School in Sparta in the fall, where he plays for his father, Vinnie, the former Marist two-sport star and former head baseball coach there, received news last week that he was indeed selected to Team USA.

“There were a lot of emotions going through my head,” Bello said. “It’s really a bittersweet moment, because of my grandfather. But I’m now taking it all in.”

Bello said that he received the news from his mother in a phone call. Bello was with his father at a baseball tournament in Georgia when the e-mail from Team USA arrived.

“My Mom was so excited for me,” Bello said. “Dad was with me eating breakfast. It was really a surreal moment and it’s one I’ll never forget. Hearing that news was amazing.”

Bello and Team USA will play four games in six days, beginning Saturday, July 20. Team USA will play at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Miller Park in Milwaukee, as well as the baseball facilities at Notre Dame and Northwestern.

“To think I’m going to be standing in the same batter’s box where Babe Ruth once batted,” said the left-handed power-hitting first baseman, who earned First Team All-State honors as a sophomore last spring. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

Bello is one of 27 players to be selected for the Team USA trip this summer. It will go a long way to determine what players represent the country in the World Baseball Championships in Korea next summer. Bello was the lone player from New Jersey selected for this trip.

It’s also somewhat ironic that Bello was selected to a national team, considering his uncle, famous basketball star and Jersey City legend Mike O’Koren was on the Team USA squad that played in the Pan American Games in 1979. O’Koren, the former Hudson Catholic High School great, the University of North Carolina All-America player and former New Jersey Nets star, was the captain of that Team USA squad 40 years ago.

“Uncle Mike always told me to outwork everyone,” Bello said. “He came to a lot of my games this year. It was good to see him. When I heard the news I made the team, I thought of Uncle Mike and his time with Team USA.”

And of course, there are the thoughts of his grandfather.
“I know he would have been very proud to wear his name on the back of my jersey and Team USA across my chest,” Bello said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Bello has already decided that he’s going to Auburn University in two years.

“I visited there in an unofficial visit and just loved the place,” Bello said. “It felt like home. The coaching staff is tremendous.”

For now, there’s the sense of national pride.

“I’m ecstatic,” Bello said. “It’s cool to represent my country and New Jersey. It’s going to be a great time.”…

Another local baseball star has decided to transfer from one prominent program to another.

Justin Willis, the former Memorial standout who played on a Team USA 15-and-under squad four years ago, has decided to leave Vanderbilt University and will transfer to the University of Connecticut.

Willis, the flame throwing right-handed pitcher who now calls North Bergen home, will be eligible to play right away at UConn, because he took a redshirt season at Vanderbilt this season. That was a little unfortunate, because Vanderbilt went on to win the College World Series in Omaha last month.

Willis really didn’t get a chance to shine at Vanderbilt.

“It was a little frustrating, because I had limited innings,” Willis said. “Even though I wasn’t a part of it [the national championship], it was still a pretty awesome experience to see everyone I worked with enjoy the moment.”

Willis said that he was working as a closer last fall during preseason workouts and scrimmages, but then he was told he wasn’t going to get the opportunity to pitch at all.

“So I decided to take the redshirt and see what happened at the end of the year,” Willis said. “I still thought I could throw.”

Willis said that he heard good things about UConn from a former teammate.

“I knew I was going through the process of transferring,” Willis said. “I went for a visit and everything was incredible. The coaches have the same pitching philosophy that I have.”

Willis will have three years of eligibility at UConn and he will major in business, which is what he always wanted to study. Vanderbilt did not offer a business degree.

“I think it will be a good move,” said Willis, who is spending the summer playing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League for the Keene Swamp Bats in New Hampshire. Willis has a 1-0 record with a 3.08 earned run average in six games for the Swamp Bats…

Congrats to the local players who were selected to play in the first-ever North-South Underclassman All-Star Game that was held last week at Kean University. Jimmy Kemp of Hudson Catholic, Andy Antonio of Ferris, Kyle Hoog of St. Peter’s Prep, Brian Baranok and Justin O’Connor of Bayonne and Kevin Villares of Union City were all on the North squad…

In closing, Hudson County lost two basketball legends last week, both of whom died way too young.

Leroy Wilson, the former Ferris superstar point guard who was on the Bulldog team that upset the great St. Anthony team in 1988, the year before the Friars won the national title, died last week. Wilson, 46 years old, was a two-time All-Hudson County performer at Ferris who was known by the nickname of “Harlem.” He was a brilliant player, one of the top 20 players this reporter has ever seen during his 50-plus years of watching Hudson County basketball…

And Joe Sharkey passed away also last week. Sharkey was a sharpshooting forward for Marist High School, Class of 1980, who went on to play first at Fairfield University, then transferred to St. Francis of Loretto, Pa., where he averaged 13 points per game his senior year. Sharkey was 57 years old. Both Wilson and Sharkey were excellent players and it’s sad to think they’re both gone too soon. – Jim Hague

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