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30

Jul, 2018

Lawrence All-Stars win District 12 title for first time since 1976

For several seasons, the nucleus of this year’s 12-year-old Lawrence Little League District 12 All-Star team danced around the perimeter of greatness but never got the steps down perfect.

Because of those flirtations, it was tough for manager Sean Kelly to feel completely secure about this tournament season. He knew it could happen, but was unsure if it would.

“I want to say yes and I want to say no,” said Kelly when asked if he thought his team had a shot at a district title entering the summer. “I’ve been with this group of kids for (four) years now and we’ve always been on the fringe of doing something great. Something’s gotten in the way along the line.

“So, I felt confident we could compete. Can I honestly say I felt 100 percent sure we were gonna win the district? No. It was a dream at the beginning. But as we moved step by step and saw the confidence grow in those young men, it came to fruition.”

Long-awaited fruition. When Lawrence pulled off a stunning, 3-2, walk-off win over host HTRBA on July 8, it produced the league’s first District 12 championship since 1976 and just its third overall. Even two one-run losses in the Section 3 Tournament could not keep the Maidenhead Gang from feeling justifiable pride.

“We still are keeping our heads high; we know we had a great season and did something no Lawrence team did in 42 years,” said Dan Dryzga, the team’s District 12 Sportsmanship Award winner. “After we won, every time I went to our baseball field they were all saying ‘Congratulations on the championship, we’re proud of you guys.’ It’s been great.”

To put it in perspective, not only were none of the players born when Lawrence last won it; but neither were a few of their parents.

“It’s kind of funny, it almost doesn’t feel real,” said Kelly, who was assisted by A.J. Moore, Marcos Lopez and Gene McGuire. “Every now and then I find myself going back and looking at the newspaper articles and the pictures, just to say ‘Did this team actually accomplish this? Did we really live this?’ It’s just such a nostalgic feeling, it’s unbelievable.”

The disbelief was caused by a roster that consisted of Dryzga, TJ. Niemann, John “JT” Gorden, Gio Brogle, Ben Pawlak, Rohan Kaistha, Marcos Lopez III, Robert Kelly, Kellen Moore, Riley Rivera, Ben Weeks, Drew McGuire and Jacob Jordan.

‘THEY HANDLED IT LIKE TRUE PROFESSIONALS AND THAT’S TOUGH TO SAY FOR A BUNCH OF 12-YEAR OLDS.’

It was a group that only gave up when the outs ran dry. Lawrence opened the tournament by taking a big lead then holding on against Bordentown for a 12-11 win. That put Kelly’s squad in the winner’s bracket final, where a victory meant one more win was necessary while a loss forced Lawrence to have to win three.

The hometown heroes fell to HTRBA, which meant they had a long trip ahead.

Panic?

Nah.

“I gotta tell you, the amazing thing about these gentlemen through this whole thing, even in sectionals, was I never saw anyone get upset,” Kelly said. “I never saw anyone get angry with any other team member. We kept using the term ‘loose as a goose,’ and they handled it like true professionals and that’s tough to say for a bunch of 12-year olds.”

Dryzga noted it was just a matter of not letting the big picture become overwhelming.

‘We said just play one inning at a time and, like coach said, just stay calm,” he explained.

Dryzga practiced what he preached in the first elimination game, as his walk-off home run gave Lawrence a 5-4, come-from-behind victory over Robbinsville.

“That was amazing, I was just so happy when I hit it; it felt great,” Dryzga said. “After that game we thought we were going all the way.”

That set up a rematch with HTRBA, who Lawrence had to beat twice to erase 42 years of frustration. The locals did just that by taking 11-4 and 3-2 extra-inning victories. In a 10-inning marathon, Lawrence blew a 4-0 lead, but Gorden and Brogle each hit three-run homers in a seven-run 10th, and Kelly added a solo shot. The following day, down to its last out, Lawrence tied it in the bottom of the sixth. In the seventh, Gorden doubled and eventually scored on a two-out error.

“Every player was positive,” Dryzga said of the comeback capabilities. “Everyone was cheering the batter on and staying positive. Nobody got down when they made a mistake, it was all positive.”

The victory led to a wild celebration, followed by adulation in the community.

“It’s almost like feeling like you’re a local hero,” Kelly said. “People came out of the woodwork to congratulate us. Everybody was so kind. Captain Paul’s (restaurant) invited the team down for hot dogs and ice cream. We got feedback from the Mercer County Freeholders, they’ve invited us to come be honored by them. Different league officials, people going out of their way to come over and see the team, congratulate everybody. We were well received, it’s hard to put it in words what the feeling around it is.”

‘THEY COMPETED AND THEY SHOWED THEY BELONGED IN DISTRICTS AND IN THE SECTIONS.’

The 12s showed they wanted more than just a district title by the way they battled in the sectionals. So did the township, as a surprisingly large turnout at Ocean Little League made the players a bit jittery.

“We showed up on Saturday for our game against Middletown and the boys were obviously very excited, ready to go,” Kelly said. “We came off from our warm-ups and there were about two to three hundred Lawrenceville supporters there. I think that kind of hit the boys over the head, I don’t think they were prepared for that much support. That turned the excitement into nervousness. It kind of showed in our first few innings, we had a couple silly little errors that we’re going to chalk up to young men being 12 years old and not being used to that type of stage.”

Lawrence fell behind 5-0 but, as usual, battled back to make it 5-4 and put runners on first and second in the sixth inning before falling short. Game two saw Lawrence go up 2-0 in the fourth before Ocean scored four in the bottom of the inning. LLL got a run back in the sixth and put a man on second before Dryzga smoked a rocket that the leftfielder was just able to haul in.

“We just weren’t able to pull of the magic in those games,” Kelly said.

Nonetheless, it culminated a once-frustrating run for a group that reached the winner’s bracket final as 10-year-olds only to fall short, and then fell to Robbinsville and Bordentown as 11s.

“It was nice to get a little revenge against those teams who knocked us out,” Kelly said. “And they did it as a group. In looking back at all the articles, a couple kids’ names showed up more than once, but there’s at least nine or 10 of our 13 players mentioned. Everyone contributed in so many different ways.”

And for the first time since the late 1970s, a Lawrence High baseball coach can feel excited about his little league feeder system.

“They’re the future,” LHS coach Jason Zegarski said. “Hopefully they’re playing for us in three or four years. Hopefully when they come to us they’re nice and seasoned, we can better them as ballplayers. They are kids playing well with bright futures, that’s all we can ask for.”

Kelly feels the group’s competitive nature will continue to pay dividends.

“They competed and they showed they belonged in districts and in the sections,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a springboard as they move forward. They’ve got a great future in front of them for middle school and high school. I think they’ll compete and do very well.”
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