By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — Mike Bello has not even appeared in an official game for Pope John XXIII Regional High School’s baseball team and he has already made history.
Bello, a freshman outfielder for the Lions, has become the first Sussex County player to commit to play for a college in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference after deciding last Thursday night to make a verbal commitment to Auburn University to continue his academic and baseball careers after he graduates from Pope John in 2021.
Though his first season with Pope John officially begins on Wednesday, Bello already has a bright future waiting on deck and is ecstatic about it to say the least.
“It feels amazing,” Bello said. “I’ve worked so hard to get to this point in my life. I want to soak in this moment, but I know I have to get better. I know playing in the SEC will be tough, so I have to improve and hopefully everything will work out.”
Despite not having donned the Pope John uniform yet, Bello got the opportunity to commit to Auburn — currently ranked No. 11 in the country by the National College Baseball Writers Association — because of his already impressive credentials to date.
Bello is the top-ranked player in his class in New Jersey, according to Prep Baseball Report. He is also ranked No. 52 in the country for 2021, according to Perfect Game USA.
He earned those rankings after being a standout on his club team, 9ers Baseball Club, and performing at a high level at showcases and tournaments across the country. In July, Bello attended the WWBA 2020 Grads National Championship at the Perfect Game USA headquarters in Cartersville, Ga., and he not only performed well (slashing .318/.458/.879 in 29 plate appearances), but also played well enough to catch the attention of the Auburn.
Needless to say, Bello found his dream school.
“When I went there for an unofficial visit, I fell in love,” Bello said. “I was speechless when I saw how great the place was and what it offered both academically and athletically. I knew very quickly that this was the school for me.”
After the Auburn unofficial visit, Bello went on a few more unofficial visits to other D-I schools, but still maintained contact with the Tigers. While the visits were nice, Bello felt that none of them compared to what he saw at Auburn.
Luckily for him, Bello got the chance to commit to the school rather than keep exploring other options after he was an offered a scholarship the other night.
“When I called one of the coaches to just talk because we talk pretty much every week, he said we are going to make an offer,” Bello said. “If you want to take it, great. If you want to wait, then that’s fine. It is your choice. But, I said, ‘Coach, I want to put on a jersey that says Auburn on it.’”
Bello said he couldn’t have earned this opportunity without the support of his family, 9ers head coach Robert Maida and other coaches and teammates.
“My Mom, Dad, and two brothers (Pope John senior Nick Bello and Pope John seventh grade student Dominick Bello) have been there every step of the way,” Bello said. “Coach Maida has done so much for me and my family as well to help me become a better man. My teammates and coaches who I have played for have also been a big help.”
Pope John head coach Vin Bello, who is Mike’s father, was obviously ecstatic about his son’s commitment, but the coach in him realizes that there is certain expectations now put on the shoulders of Mike’s 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame.
“As his Dad, even though the commitment is early, I can’t ask for anything more,” Vin Bello said. “It’s surreal. It’s something you are not used to seeing. But, as his coach, I’m going to push him harder now. He has to work harder than everybody else because that is just the way it is when you commit to a school like Auburn.”
Luckily for the elder Bello, Mike has had the opportunity to be around the Pope John program all of his young life because Vin has been coaching the team since the 1999-2000 school year. Vin is entering his 19th season as the Lions’ manager and his 21st season overall as a high school baseball coach.
One of the constants that Mike has appreciated from Vin and the Lions is the philosophy of the program.
“The main thing that my Dad has taught me and the program is to play for the people who have put on the jersey before you,” Mike said. “Just respect them, the program and the school. That means a lot to me.”
But unlike any Sussex County player who went on to play at a D-I college, including Lions greats Alex DeBellis, Brendan Mayers, Matt Tietz, Matt Ackerman, Conor McGlynn, Jack Nelson, Mike Banda, Dan Cunico, Sean Miller, Trevor Backman, and Sean Roberts, Mike Bello will be bound for Auburn and the SEC, arguably the best conference for college baseball.
Until then, he is looking forward to four years of hard work and dedication to the Lions, starting on Wednesday when they host Mendham.
“This is a great moment because I am going to college, but I need to get better,” Mike said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun playing for Pope John and wearing the Lions across my chest.”