After three chances of coming so close to qualifying for Major League Baseball’s RBI (Re-Building Baseball in the Inner-cities) World Series in each of the last three summers, Roberto Clemente Little League 18-and-under head coach Nelson Estremera had a hunch that this could be the year.
So when the RBI East Regional championships began two weeks ago in Springfield, Mass., Estremera felt very good about his team’s chances.
“We went into the tournament very confident,” Clemente head coach Estremera said. “This team is one of the best we’ve ever had. They all came up through the Roberto Clemente program. This particular team has been together for four years and they’ve been to the championship round three straight years. So we came in very confident.”
It didn’t hurt that the team had a veteran ace pitcher to lead the way.
Jaylene Sierra, the 2018 Hudson Reporter Pitcher of the Year and four-time Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree who played last spring at Coppin State in Maryland, has returned for her final season of youth softball for the Clemente program that she has so richly served for over the last six summers.
“She’s the whole piece to the puzzle,” Estremera said of Sierra. “You can’t put a price tag on what she’s done for us. She always performs at a high level. She has incredible experience. She came back and wanted to give it her all for her last year in RBI.”
So then it was only fitting last week that Sierra was on the mound for Clemente’s 8-1 victory over Harlem RBI to capture the East Regional tournament title, finally punching Clemente’s ticket to the RBI World Series at the famed Dodgertown Facility in Vero Beach, Florida, Aug. 10 through 15.
Sierra surrendered just three runs in three games during the double-elimination East Regional that started play in Springfield, but concluded play at Washington Park Little League in Jersey City last weekend.
“Jaylene’s been dominant,” Estremera said. “She was clearly the most dominant pitcher in the tournament.”
The Clemente RBI team also received solid pitching from two hurlers from Snyder in Jordan Mendolla and Nayemi Estremera, the coach’s daughter.
The primary catcher is McNair Academic’s slugging standout Mariah Villanueva.
“She’s amazing,” coach Estremera said. “She definitely knows how to call a game better than anyone. She can take control of the defense back there.”
Mendolla, Sierra and Villanueva are all former Hudson Reporter All-Area selections. All totaled, seven former Reporter All-Area honorees are featured on this Clemente squad.
When she’s not pitching, the coach’s daughter plays first base. Nayemi also provides a big bat in the Clemente batting order, usually batting in the fifth position.
The second baseman is Mya Villanueva, the sister of the catcher. As you can see, this Clemente All-Star group is definitely a family affair.
The shortstop duties are shared by the pitching staff. When Sierra is on the mound, then Mendolla is at shortstop. When Mendolla pitches, Sierra is at shortstop.
“Those two work well together,” Estremera said.
The third baseman is Aliyah Rivera of Hudson Catholic, who will continue her softball career at Bloomfield College next spring. Rivera was fortunate enough to collect her 100th career hit for the Hawks last spring.
“She’s a natural leader,” Estremera said. “She helps to keep the team focused.”
The left fielder is Angie Navarro of Ferris, who at 16 is the youngest player on the team, playing with some girls who are three years older than her.
The centerfielder is Naya Olacio, who was a two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area selection at third base for Bayonne, but mans centerfield for this team.
“She actually likes playing the outfield better,” Estremera said. “She can play any position. She covers so much ground in centerfield.”
Another Bayonne product, Alexandra Campbell, is the primary right fielder.
The Clemente All-Stars feature a solid bench, with Jazlyn Collazo of Ferris sharing time with Rivera at third base; Gina Estrada, a fine first baseman/outfielder also from Ferris; and Zionna Loftin, the fleet-footed outfielder from Weehawken.
“Gina is another of the younger players,” Estremera said. “She’s only 16 as well. Loftin can flat out fly on the base paths. We use her as a courtesy runner for the catcher a lot. When she’s on base, anything can happen. She also can play anywhere in the field.”
The Clemente All-Stars have a talented coaching staff under Estremera. Ben “Bopo” Sierra, Jaylene’s father and the coach of the Clemente 18U All-Stars last year, is an assistant with this team, along with Modesta Rivera of Snyder and Gabe Villanueva, the father of the Villanueva sisters.
“Modesta has been with us for the last three years,” Estremera said. “It’s a good coaching staff.”
So after three close calls, losing to Harlem twice and Hoboken once over the last three summers, the girls from downtown Jersey City finally get to go to the grand stage.
“The girls were all crying,” Estremera said. “They were so happy to finally do it. Aliyah was with her family on vacation and couldn’t be with us. The girls were all FaceTiming with her and celebrating with her. It was amazing.”
And now they get a chance to experience the perks of MLB’s premier summer tourney.
“It’s a great feeling,” Estremera said. “They’re going to the World Series and getting the opportunity to experience it all. It was always something that kept us from getting over the hump. I think it was destiny this year. We had to take care of it.”
It’s been a summer to remember for the elder Estremera, who just last week was sworn in as a new captain in the Jersey City Fire Department. A promotion and a trip to Florida as a reward – not a bad thing at all.
The Roberto Clemente RBI Softball All-Stars have a GoFundMe page that was set up to raise funds to help defray the costs of the recent trip to the East Regionals. So visit GoFundMe.com and search for the Roberto Clemente RBI softball team at https://www.gofundme.com/f/roberto-clemente-rbi-softball.
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