For the last two years, Justin Willis didn’t play the sport he loves, namely baseball.
The West New York native and Memorial High School graduate missed all of the 2019 season due to an injury and then had to sit out the entire 2020 season due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
Willis, who first went to Vanderbilt University, then transferred to the University of Connecticut, was looking forward to getting back on the mound this spring.
However, COVID-19 hadn’t really hit the Storrs, Connecticut campus with full force until early April, when the Huskies were shut down and quarantined for two weeks.
“Once we got shut down with COVID, we had to scramble to find games when we got back,” Willis said.
The Huskies needed a minimum of 15 games to qualify for the Big East Tournament. Willis, a right-handed flame-throwing relief pitcher, didn’t know if the Huskies were going to get a chance to participate in the postseason.
“I knew that if we got in, we had a good chance,” Willis said. “At least, I liked our chances.”
The Huskies got the top seed in the Big East Tournament.
“That was really big for us,” Willis said. “Our starting pitchers put us in position to win.”
The relief pitchers, like Willis, helped as well. Willis posted a 4-0 record with a 2.60 earned run average and one save. His fourth and final win was the biggest, as the Huskies defeated Xavier, 10-6, to win the Big East Tournament championship at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio (Xavier’s home field).
With the win, the Huskies (33-17) moved on to the NCAA World Series this weekend, where they were expected to play the University of Michigan at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana in the opening round of the regional. Host Notre Dame was set to face Central Michigan in the other game in the double-elimination regional.
There’s no doubt that the Huskies made the NCAA Tourney with the help of Willis, who has junior eligibility after transferring to UConn from Vanderbilt. Willis struck out 20 batters in 17 innings, appearing in 16 games. It’s safe to say that Willis’ future is now as a relief pitcher.
“I think that’s pretty clear now,” Willis said. “I get used in high pressure situations. I like getting the ball with the game on the line. I get the ball and try to get the game to the next guy. I love what I’m doing. I think it’s really cool how I can change the game on one or two batters.”
Willis said that he was helped by first going to a top-flight baseball program like Vanderbilt.
“I got to see what that was like,” Willis said. “I came here, got a shot in the bullpen and like getting after it.”
Willis has two years left, but is eligible for the upcoming Major League Baseball draft, so that might change his way of thinking and living. For now, Willis is majoring in resource economics, dealing with the economy of the food industry with an emphasis on dairy products.
“I like economics,” Willis said. “I think this was all perfect for me. I like the attitude here. We are not as big here as the basketball team [ironically coached by Jersey City native Dan Hurley], so I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders because of it. It’s all been pretty awesome.”
And it’s pretty cool that Hudson County may have a representative going forward in the NCAA College World Series…
Ironically, one of Willis’ former teammates is getting a chance to play pro baseball.
West New York native Mike Martinez, who played high school baseball at Bergen Catholic in Ramsey and college baseball at Felician University in Rutherford, signed a free agent contract with the Sussex County Miners of the independent Can-Am League. Martinez joined the team last week. He is a first baseman, but said he is willing to play other positions as a professional. Martinez also pitched a little for Felician.
“I wasn’t too sure if I would get the opportunity,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance because of the pandemic. So it was huge just to get the shot and now it’s up to me to make the most of it.”
Martinez first attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick and played there in 2016. But Martinez elected not to play baseball in 2017 and returned to baseball at Felician in 2018 and 2019.
Martinez batted .256 with five homers and 41 RBI in 2019. Again, with no spring sports in 2020 due to the pandemic, Martinez had to hope and wait for the call.
But Martinez had a fine season this spring for the Golden Falcons, batting .333 with seven homers and 18 RBI, catching the eye of former major leaguer Bobby Jones, the former New York Mets and Colorado Rockies pitcher (the left-handed Bobby Jones, not the righty).
Jones is the manager of the Sussex County Miners. Jones, a native of Rutherford, saw Martinez play at Felician and thought he could help the Miners. Jones contacted Felician veteran coach Chris Langan to talk about Martinez.
“Coach Langan called me and asked me if I was interested in playing pro ball with the Miners,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘Yes, I am interested.’ Of course, I was interested. I drove up to Sussex to meet him. I told him I was maturing as a hitter and was able to find my power and put a few over the wall. I think my coaches brought it up that I might have to sign with an independent team. That was fine. I was happy to get the chance.”
The 24-year-old Martinez signed the contract last week, but was not able to play right away.
“I was just happy to get the chance to come back this year and find my swing again,” Martinez said. “It was definitely hard being away for a year. I just want to stay involved in the game.”
Martinez said that he fell in love with baseball, playing with guys like Willis in West New York Little League.
“Justin Willis, Victor Guzman, Gregory Cuevas, we were all close at that age,” Martinez said. “It’s crazy to think that they’re all the reason why I’m here as a pro ball player. It gave me the opportunity to play professionally. I think this is going to be a good taste and I’m hoping for the best. I just love the game.”
And two Little League teammates getting the chance to excel at a higher level in the same week…
Hudson Reporter High School Baseball Top Five: 1. Ferris (17-4). 2. Hudson Catholic (14-7). 3. St. Peter’s Prep (15-9). 4. Bayonne (14-10). 5. Union City (9-9).
Hudson Reporter High School Softball Top Five: 1. Hudson Catholic (19-2). 2. Bayonne (15-8). 3. Union City (10-8). 4. Weehawken (12-4). 5. North Bergen (11-14). – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com