It was a long, strange trip for New Jersey’s Monroe Township Little League all-stars.
But they had no complaints when all was said and done.
After a mistake in the application of tie-breaking procedures, the New Jersey team found out when it was on its way home that it was supposed to be in the Mid-Atlantic championship game at the 9/10 Eastern Region Invitational in Cranston. The next day, players, coaches and families came back – and they made it worth their while. New Jersey beat Delmar, Md., 15-11 to capture the Mid-Atlantic title then stayed on the field and beat Southington, Conn., 3-1 for the Eastern Region championship.
“It was well worth the trip back,” said New Jersey manager Jim Love. “Winning the Mid-Atlantic title was awesome, and then to win this is the cherry on top. It’s unbelievable.”
New Jersey became the first Mid-Atlantic team to win the overall Eastern Region championship in the four-year history of the tournament, which is hosted by Cranston Western Little League.
It was all the more remarkable because of the wild route to the title round.
The team’s caravan was sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike on Friday evening when Love got the call. Tournament officials had used runs allowed as the tie-breaker to break a three-way jam between Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey atop the Mid-Atlantic pool play standings. But Little League rules stipulate that, in a three-way tie, runs allowed is only used to advance one team from the tie. That was Maryland, who allowed the fewest runs. For the remaining two teams, the tiebreaker is head-to-head, and New Jersey had beaten Pennsylvania in pool play.
The Mid-Atlantic title game was originally scheduled for Friday, but rain forced a postponement to Saturday. That left the door open for New Jersey to claim its rightful spot.
“We started getting calls, and they decided there was a problem,” Love said. “We were supposed to be here. They wanted to make sure we could come back. No hesitation – everybody said yes.”
The next morning, the Monroe crew woke up before dawn and hit the road around 5:30 a.m.
Thirteen hours later, they were champions.
“To get all the way here the way we did – I still can’t believe it,” Love said. “The kids, I don’t think they understand what they did yet. This is insane.”
New Jersey won a slugfest with Maryland for the Mid-Atlantic title. Connecticut had beaten Vermont in dramatic fashion earlier in the day for the New England crown.
That set up the Eastern Region championship, the third game of the day, and New Jersey showed no ill effects from the long drive or the long game it had just finished playing. It scored three runs in the first inning on two walks, a wild pitch, an RBI single by Dillon Love and an RBI groundout by Luke Dinger.
Amazingly, against a Connecticut team that had scored 13 runs in the New England title game, the three-run first inning was all New Jersey needed.
Love delivered the pitching performance of the tournament, going all six innings and allowing just a run on four hits in the 3-1 victory.
“We were down to our last two pitchers,” Jim Love. “We put him on the mound today and he did a great job.”
Connecticut scored a run in the fourth after Jake Neuman hit a hard line drive to right field that was mis-handled and eventually came around on another error.
Connecticut pitcher Shane Laporte did his part, too, keeping his team within striking distance by allowing just two more hits after the rough first inning.
But New Jersey never let a comeback get off the ground. Dillon Love got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, striking out the side around a walk, an infield hit and an error.
“I think the boys were drained after that first game,” said Connecticut manager Chris Laporte. “Extra innings, coming back like we did – it’s hard to bounce back from that. It’s hard to keep them up for so long. Our bats just didn’t have the kick like we usually do. I think we were just drained. But New Jersey deserves everything they got. They played a great game.”
In the top of the sixth, with his pitch-count rising, Love induced a pop-up for the first out. Michael Gurzenda then reached on an error, but Love needed just two pitches to get out number two on a fly-out.
That left Love’s pitch count at 73 – two away from the limit – meaning he could face the next batter.
And he made it count.
On a 2-2 pitch, Love induced a ground ball up the middle. Shortstop Caden Dulin made a diving stop just behind the second-base bag then reached his glove out to touch second for the force-out.
New Jersey went wild.
“These kids lived a dream,” Jim Love said. “We logged a lot of miles in the last 24 hours. Very little sleep. It’s unbelievable.”
Connecticut’s ride was a special one, as well. Southington South Little League hadn’t won a state championship in any division since 1969. This group took it a step further.
“No complaints,” Laporte said. “It was a magical season. These kids fought and battled and they’re going home as New England champions.”
And New Jersey is going home again, this time with the biggest trophy of all.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Love said. “From the day we started, we said these guys have a shot to get up here. Coming up here and winning it? Unbelievable. I’m so glad Cranston had us here and that we were able to get here. They were awesome hosts. I wish these kids were 10-years-old again next year so we could come back.”