By Anthony Williams
When it comes to winning baseball games, Bordentown Post 26 and head coach Tom Dolan have winning down to a science.
The team captured three league championships in the last five seasons, including in 2011, and finished second in the 2011 New Jersey American Legion State Tournament. During that span, Bordentown has adopted a dangerous and unconventional recipe for contending, which includes early struggles, a trip to Rhode Island and a late-season surge to the championship. Post 26 followed the formula to a “T” this year, surging at the end of the season to force a three-way tie for the league championship. Bordentown lost in the second game of a playoff, and finished the year second in the MCALL.
After a promising pre-season, Post 26 began the defense of its 2011 League Championship with an 0-2 start and rounded out the pre-Rhode Island portion of the season with an 8-5 record and a 4th place standing, trailing West Windsor, Allentown and Hopewell.
“Early season struggles aren’t new for us,” Dolan said. “We usually start off slow and pick up steam as the season progresses. We come from such a large area and [have players from] so many different high schools and colleges that it’s difficult to have the chemistry a lot of these other teams have at the beginning of the season.”
The major catalyst for Post 26’s recent run of success has been their annual trip to the Fireball Classic in Rhode Island during the Fourth of July holiday, where the team uses the alone time to build camaraderie among the players.
“Rhode Island allows us to get away from our families and friends and avoid life’s little distractions,” shortstop Heath Fillmyer said. “We spend a lot of time bonding on the trip and seem to come back with a renewed energy for the second half of the season.”
True to form, Post 26 returned from their 3-win, 2-loss performance in the Fireball Classic and wasted no time in closing the gap between it and first place.
In their first game back in league action, Bordentown thumped league leader West Windsor-Plainsboro, 10-0, in five innings and reeled off four more consecutive wins to create a 3-way tie atop the standings with WW-P and Allentown. The West Windsor-Plainsboro win avenged an extra-inning 3-2 loss at the beginning of the season, and saw Joe Gutowski demonstrate why he is the reigning Mercer County American Legion Pitcher of the Year.
“Joe was top notch against West Windsor,” Dolan said. “He is definitely one of the best pitchers in the league and he showed it by shutting down the first-place team.”
Bordentown would eventually drop a disappointing 4-3 decision to Hopewell Valley Post 339, but didn’t spend much time dwelling on their minor set-back as it rebounded with a 4-3 win against second place Allentown.
A big part of Post 26’s run and their ability to rebound so quickly from the loss has been the play of Kean University-bound Fillmyer. Fillmyer, the starting shortstop, is coming off of a season that saw him contribute to Florence High School’s second consecutive Central Jersey Group I State Championship, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
“Heath is a special player,” Dolan said. “He’s batting north of .600 over our current run, plays solid defense, pitches for us, and is a great team leader. He makes Derek Jeter-esque plays for us, and it won’t surprise me when he gets taken in next year’s major league draft.”
Despite all of the accolades and praise Fillmyer has earned, he continues to keep things in perspective for himself and his team.
“I think the draft talk is more of coach’s speculation,” Fillmyer said. “There are teams looking at me, but I’m just one of 17 hard working players on this team. I try to keep my head small and work hard so good things happen for us.”
Good things seemed to be happening for Bordentown at just the right time, as they secured home-field advantage in the district tournament, awarded to the league’s top two finishers.
Both Dolan and Fillmyer understood the opportunity their team had in front of them and neither one took it for granted.
“We have a lot to prove this year,” Fillmyer said. “We lost a lot of talented players from last year’s team and we struggled early. I feel like we’re just starting to find our rhythm and can make the World Series if we continue to play the way we’ve been playing.”