COVID-19 High School Sports Spotlight: Hopewell Valley Bulldogs were No Underdogs Heading into this Baseball Season

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By: Keith Noonan

The Hopewell Valley baseball program was one game away from back-to-back Mercer county championship last year. But Notre Dame and their star pitcher, Robbie Buecker stood in their way. Buecker stifled the Bulldogs to just three runs over 7 innings at Arm and Hammer park to deliver the banner back to Notre Dame. This year, Hopewell was looking to get back to Arm and hammer for a third straight campaign.
“Heading into this year I thought we had a good team, the potential to compete for another MCT Title,” Head coach Ken Harrison said. “We lost some key players, especially our top 2 pitchers from last year, but I think we had enough arms to compete and I was expecting some pitchers to take bigger roles with us. This team also had great leadership which I think accounts for an extra win or 2 throughout the season,” Harrison said.

Senior Kenny Tagliareni, who hit over .400 last year and is playing baseball next year at Misericordia, also had big expectations.
“Going into this season we had a strong group of returning players. We had 11 seniors on our roster, and the chemistry pre season was the best I’ve seen during my career. Playing in 3 straight MCT finals, we expect to be at the top each and every year. Our expectations are not only to win the division, but play for a county, sectional, and state title every year,” Tagliareni said.
His teammate and fellow senior Jack Haynes, who also hit over .400 last year, is taking his talents to TCNJ next fall to play baseball, followed Kenny’s sentiments aspiring to win it all and MCT’s. He also added a personal goal “I wanted to enjoy one more year with my coaches and teammates. I also wanted to leave with having a positive influence on the underclassmen like the seniors did when I was a freshman,” Haynes said.
Coach Harrison adknowledge this year’s team as being very experienced, having 11 seniors. Coach Harrison said he had hope that this team may be better in other aspects from last year. “I felt like this team had a lot of depth especially in the outfield and I felt like this team would hit better than last year’s team. Defensively we looked solid all around and I thought we had some pitching depth as well with some guys poised to take the next step in their development,” Harrison said.

Then, of course, came the day the season was suspended, and no one could have prepared student athletes, parents, and coaches for what would come next. Tagliareni was beside himself when he found out the news, “When I found out the season was suspended, I was with Coach Balog. It was a very upsetting, but an authorized decision by the state. We were scheduled to have practice that day at 3pm, and when we were told to clear our lockers, it was a heartbreaking moment I will never forget,” Tagliareni said.

Coach Harrison recalled that heartbreaking moment as well, “I stood by the team room door as the players collected their belongings and left. I just said see you soon and they were gone,” Harrison said.

Jack Haynes was able to put things in perspective after he found out,“I was in English class when I found out the schools were closing, which would lead to our season getting suspended. I was disappointed in hearing the news because the team worked very hard in the offseason. I soon realized the pandemic was bigger than baseball and my attention quickly turned to the safety of my family and friends,” Haynes said.

Coach Harrison was hoping it didn’t have to come to this, but told his players the day before to be prepared in case it happened.
“I had a team meeting the day before prepping the team for a possibility something like this would happen. The kids were upset but I don’t think anyone knew the extent of how long this would last. We were told it was going to be 2 weeks. So I think we were all thinking like it was going to be a little break then we would be back at it. When I had to write the email to all the parents about what was going on, I was devastated because I was so focused on the season and getting the players prepared and it finally hit me that we were not going to play baseball for a couple weeks. I was trying to figure out what the players could do outside of school to stay in playing shape and be ready to go when they got back. The senior leaders actually had practices and scrimmage games lined up on their own to continue to prepare for the season but that eventually had to end because they closed all the fields down for social distancing,” Harrison said.

Our expectations are not only to win the division, but play for a county, sectional, and state title every year. Hopewell Valley Senior Kenny Tagliareni

Coach Harrison spoke about leadership, and Tagliareni and Haynes did their best to provide it along with the 9 other seniors during this difficult time.
“The mood among our teammates was incredibly somber. Many of our seniors will never play baseball again, and for them, this was the last ride. Several of our seniors spent time on JV last year, and they have worked extremely hard to make it to the varsity level. Working nonstop since the summer to not only work on their skills, but improve their strength and agility. On April 1st I texted the team twice. Once at midnight to say, ” happy opening day.” And another one at 4 pm saying, “Happy first pitch.” For many of us, this was another way to keep hope for a season alive,” Tagliareni said.

On the lighter side, Tagliareni told me his family is still incredibly competitive. They have established a corn hole competition amongst the family. He made sure to let me know his team was currently winning 18-11, the winner has to pay for a family TopGolf session before he goes away for college. While most of the family is able to stay home, one family member is owed an incredible amount of gratitude from all of us during this pandemic. Kenny’s mother is a nurse at Robert Wood Johnson hospital, and we at WBCB thank her for everything she is doing and will continue to do.
As for the Haynes’s, Jack said,
“it feels very weird not playing any baseball with Spring being here, but it is definitely nice seeing my family. Both of my sisters have returned home from college and it has been great seeing them everyday. I have been doing workout sessions over Zoom alongside other athletes from Central Jersey under the supervision of Connor Abreu, who owns the ThunderNLighting Performance gym in Hamilton, New Jersey,” Haynes said.

Last but not least, Coach Harrison’s family is at home, which is typically not the case at this time of the year.
“As for my family and I, it’s very different and much less crazy. We were used to being out running around from baseball practices and games to softball practices and games. I am actually an assistant coach for my son’s travel team so I was leaving my practices and heading right to his practices a few nights a week. I’m missing 4 different baseball/softball seasons right now. It’s hard for all of us not being at the field but we are all healthy and everyone is adjusting well to school at home and just hanging out with each other,” Harrison said.

“I have been keeping busy at home. My wife and I are both teachers so that’s part of it. Helping my kids with their school work and trying to coach them at home takes up some time. I actually built a pitching mound in my backyard for my son so we use that regularly. Trying to coach virtually has been a challenge but we’re doing the best we can. And lastly just doing stuff around the house I normally wouldn’t be able to do passes the time,” Harrison continued.

Coach Harrison has made a point to establish constant communication with his players, even if they can’t be on the field or in the dugout together.
“We have 2 virtual meetings a week set up. We have set up workouts and gave them schedules of things to do for certain positions. It’s tough because you don’t know what type of equipment each player has at home so we tell them to be creative, set a routine and be their own coach. We have told them that their practices are at home right now and if we come back they have to be just about game ready. If we come back we’ll have 6 practices/scrimmages and then the season would start,” Harrison said.

If we don’t get to see this team on the field, coach Harrison really loves this group of players, and he told me how excited he was to watch this group take the field.
“The whole Senior class is a bunch of great kids and I’m really missing having the experience to coach these guys on a daily basis. We also have a great bunch of returning underclassmen that I was excited about to see their progress and improvement from last year. As a coach I really miss the grind of the season. The practices, the games and preparing for games and missing the great experiences that you know you would have had is really eating at me,” Harrison said.