By: Richard Greco | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
As an eighth grader, Ronaldo Espinal remembers watching a struggling Shabazz team getting 10-run ruled on a consistent basis. Now as a senior, Espinal has been a crucial piece in the program’s turnaround and helped bring the Newark public school its most successful season to date.
Shabazz won the Independence Division title, the program’s first divisional championship. It went 12-1 against divisional opponents and finished the regular season with a 17-9 record. Shabazz also advanced to the second round of the 85th Greater Newark Tournament, which is the furthest the program has made it.
“It was really important,” Espinal said. “In the summertime, I play for teams with kids from Barringer and Bloomfield Tech, but they always looked down on me just because of the fact that I played for Shabazz. Now we are on the same level.”
The program has blossomed under Shabazz coach Ryan Cordero, assistant coach Dan Barcia and former assistant coach Kevin Arroyo. For Cordero, who is a social studies teacher at the school and has been with the program the past eight years, seeing Shabazz reach this milestone is a testament of all the hard work that his staff and players put in through the years.
“There was a lot of hard work that came in this program,” he said. “It comes down to the kids first and foremost. We have to believe in them. At the end, they believe in you too and start to earn your respect as crazy as things may get.”
Most of Cordero’s seniors have been on the varsity squad for the past three years. In a neighborhood where baseball isn’t the dominate sport, fielding a quality team is no easy task.
“In the South Ward, there’s a good baseball player that’s in the streets or doesn’t make it to his 12th grade year because he’ll drop out or just doesn’t want to play baseball anymore,” Espinal said. “Every year, the rate of baseball players in the South Ward goes down. For us to gather enough players that are talented and take the conference that’s good enough for me.”
Making fielding a team even more difficult is the fact that Shabazz isn’t know for its baseball program. Instead it is a football and basketball school. It’s women’s basketball program flourished under legendary coach Vanessa Watson and its football team advanced to the North 2, Group 1 final this past year.
Getting its baseball program on the map is something that Shabazz alum Odanis Rodriguez, who graduated in 2012, is very proud of.
“This program has come a long, long way,” Rodriguez said. “I give a lot of props to coach Cordero. He brought this team from nothing. We were always on a losing streak and always in a slump. He made it happen with this team. They look really good. It’s a different ball game they’re playing now.”
Shabazz hopes to continue look good when the state tournament gets under. Shabazz received the fifth seed in the North 2, Group 1 tournament and will host 12th-seeded Weehawken in the first round on Monday.