Union unloads big bats in Quad County All-Star Game

By Bob Behre | June 29, 2024

C.J. Bates of Scotch Plains-Fanwood pitched two scoreless innings for Union County.

On a night when longtime Montclair State baseball coach Norm Schoenig was honored, the Chris Roof-coached Union County team unloaded some heavy lumber to defeat Essex County, 22-9. 

Roof and Westfield coach Jay Cook, a Union County assistant last night, played for Schoenig at Montclair State, so it was appropriate to see their Union County charges behave at the plate like many of Norm’s teams.

Meanwhile, on an adjacent field at North Brunswick’s Community Park, the Hudson and Middlesex County teams played to a tense and highly competitive 5-5 tie in the Quad County Underclass All-Star Game.

The Quad County showcase event began in 2018, a natural progression from what began in 2010 as a Union-Essex game. Montclair State grad Bob Smorol is the showcase’s organizer and played for both the late, great Fred Hill and Schoenig at Montclair State.

Justin Zdeb of Johnson (Clark) was named the Union County team’s MVP after a terrific 3-for-4, 5 RBI performance. Zdeb, Union’s starting catcher, also scored two runs and his biggest hits came in the middle of big Union rallies in the third, fourth and fifth innings.

Zdeb had gone 0-for-3 in a noon game at Diamond Nation for the Diamond Jacks Gold 16U, so came in a bit warmed up off what he called three good at bats, despite the 0-fer.

Will Mahala (Essex) and Justin Zdeb (Union) were named MVPs of the Essex vs. Union Game.

“I hit the ball well in the afternoon game, so I felt good coming in,” said Zdeb, a rising junior. “My approach is line drive middle. I’m seeing the ball well. This was just fun, being in the same dugout and playing with guys you’ve gone against all year. I was just trying to have fun and play like I was a little kid.”

Zdeb’s Union teammate, Aaron Ives of Westfield, made a strong case for the Union team’s MVP when he went 3-for-6 with 5 RBI, scored two runs and made a terrific diving catch in left field on a shot by Seton Hall Prep’s Jordan Burwell in the second inning.

Will Mahala of Seton Hall Prep was named the Essex County team’s MVP after putting forth a typical all-around performance in center field and at the plate. Mahala capped a six-run second inning for Essex with a three-run double down the right field line. He also drew a walk, scored a run and stole two bases. His other at bat looked like another hit but Joe LaRosa of Scotch Plains-Fanwood, now in left field for Union in the fourth inning, made a diving grab.

Mahala wasn’t trying to complicate things with the bases loaded.

“I was staying simple with three runners on, staying with my approach” said the Virginia commit. “I got two strikes on me and shot a 2-2 pitch down the right field line. It was great playing tonight with and against guys I’ve played against so much.”

Will, a rising senior, is the last of seven baseball-playing Mahalas — Thomas, Kevin, Jack, Michael, Patrick, Luke and Will — all who attended Seton Hall Prep and played or are playing in college. Luke is at Stevens Tech. The tribe of Mahala boys have a younger sister, Grace.

Jean Carlo Calderon of Union City was named the Hudson County MVP and Justin Hascup of Old Bridge earned the honor for Middlesex.

Hascup homered in his first at bat and drew a walk. “It was an exciting game and it was an honor to play in the game and be teammates with these guys,” said Hascup. “When my name was announced, I was happy because last year I didn’t perform well, hitting-wise. But I’m extremely happy that I won the MVP for Middlesex.”

Calderon came into the showcase highly confident and that translated well to the game.

“My goal has always been to give my best,” said Calderon. “I watched during warmups and thought I could win the MVP. I want to thank everyone for the opportunity.”

Calderon went 2-for-4 and drove in the game-tying run in the fourth inning, then entered in the ninth and pitched a scoreless frame to preserve the tie for Hudson County.

“He was terrific,” said Hudson assistant Wil Mendez of St. Peter’s Prep. “He was THE player of the field. Union City has itself a good player.”

Cameron Perez, a rising junior at North Bergen, supported the Hudson attack with a 2-for-3 effort.

Norm Schoenig of Montclair State receives the Distinguished Achievement Award at the Quad County Underclassmen All-Star Games. Schoenig, center, is joined by, from left, former player Jay Cook, event organizer Bob Smorol, wife Pat, and former player Chris Roof.

Schoenig, touching all the bases as usual, read from a prepared speech and, of course, mentioned his buddy Hill, who he coached with at the Verona American Legion program in what seems like another lifetime.

Hill, when he was guiding the Rutgers University baseball team, and Schoenig were often seen standing together and chatting on the recruiting trail around the state. While Hill was recruiting Division 1 players and Schoenig chasing down Division 3 talent, they certainly provided each other valuable information on the available and deep talent pool in the Garden State over the years.

Schoenig singled out his wife, Pat, who was home with their son and daughter while Norm was molding men around the state.

Schoenig actually played at Montclair State himself, for the legendary Clary Anderson, and began coaching as an assistant at the NJAC school in 1977. You guessed it, under Hill. Schoenig assumed the reins at Montclair in 1988 when Hill moved to Rutgers. Schoenig became a legend himself at Montclair State, posting a gaudy 724-409-11 career record over 26 seasons that included the 1993 and 2000 Division 3 National Championships. Roof was a freshman on that 1993 team.

“Moose was one of the main reasons I got into coaching and I’m glad I did,” said Roof, whose Gov. Livingston team won the NJSIAA Group 2 championship earlier this month. Roof boasts a 476-184-1 career record, a staggering .721 winning percentage, building a legendary career himself in Berkeley Heights. Cook, a 2006 Montclair State University grad, is already 47-18 at the Westfield helm after following the retiring Bob Brewster in 2022.

“Moose” has been a term of endearment for Schoenig, Hill and their players over the years.

“From one Moose to another Moose, thank you for all you did for me,” said Roof.

Schoenig’s team’s won five NJAC titles and produced 18 All-Americans and 15 players who signed professional contracts. Retiring after the 2014 season, Norm never really left our sight. The baseball in his blood just wouldn’t allow it. He’s helped out as an assistant at Rutgers-Camden, Kean University, Immaculata University and Penn State-Abington. Hey, everyone needs a retirement gig to keep them busy.

Bob Smorol presents MVP awards to Justin Hascup (Middlesex) and Jean Carlo Calderon (Hudson).

Game Notes: Liam Sullivan of Westfield went 3-for-4 with two RBI and scored a run. … Frank Dasti, one of the top hitters in Union County, was iced out of the hit column, through no fault of his own. He drew three walks and reached on an infield error. … Thomas Flack of Summit singled and scored a run and knocked in a run with a sac fly. … 

Two Union County pitchers hurled a pair of scoreless innings after Essex had scored eight runs in its first three at bats. C.J. Bates of Scotch Plains-Fanwood struck out two and walked two over a scoreless fourth and fifth innings. Eliezer Cepeda of Elizabeth pitched a scoreless sixth and ninth inning, striking out three and walking two. Cepeda also went 1-for-3 at the plate with a single, sac fly and two RBI.

… Isaac Buchalter of Columbia had a single and an RBI double for Essex. … Sean Walsh of Belleville had an RBI single in Essex’s six-run second inning and drew a pair of walks in his other two at bats. … Jordan Burwell of Seton Hall Prep had a number of good at bats. He was robbed of a hit by Ives’ diving catch in the second inning, doubled and scored in the third, and reached on a fielder’s choice and stole a base in the fourth.

… Lefty-hitting Justin Jimenez of St. Benedict’s, a rising sophomore, hit, perhaps, the hardest ball of the day when he doubled to the fence in right-center in the sixth for Essex. But Jimenez got greedy and was easily gunned down at third trying for a triple.

… The Hudson pitching staff did a nice job containing the potent Middlesex lineup. Corey Pascarella of Colonia pitched 1⅔ no-hit innings and Mike Boehm of Hudson Catholic, Adrian Garcia of Union City, Jayden Mercado of Ferris and Julius Rosado of South River all were efficient in keeping the Middlesex bats at bay.

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