Nottingham’s Danny Melnick watches a ball he hit during the 12-year-old baseball District 12 championship July 11, 2013. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

HTRBA’s Bryce Fremgren pitches against Nottingham during the July 11, 2013 District 12 Little League championship game. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Ryan Schwager, Josh Lyons, Jared Brunow, Joe Swidasz, David Iorio Jr., Ryan Mains, Noah Raab, Anthony Spadacinni, Jake Muller, Gabe Santin, Danny Melnick and Mario Mazur celebrate Nottingham Little League’s District 12 championship July 11, 2013. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Nottingham beats Robbinsville in the District 12 Little League Tournament.

Entering this year’s 12-year-old District 12 Little League Tournament, the talk was mostly—and fairly—focused on Robbinsville as being the overwhelming favorite.

Robbinsville had won districts as 10- and 11-year-olds and never lost a game during that time. Nottingham had won two straight 12-year-old titles and three in the last four years, but its 11-year-old team wasn’t all that successful last year, losing some tight games.

Part of the reason, however, was two of the best 11-year-old players in 2012 were already wreaking havoc in the 12-year-old tournament, as Jake Muller and Danny Melnick played up a level last year and helped Nottingham to the state final.

They were back with their old mates this year, and Nottingham steamrolled through the districts, winning three games by the 10-run mercy rule before being extended to six innings by township rival HTRBA in what proved to be an 8-4 win for the title. In the first game of the Section 3 Tournament, Nottingham steamrolled past Eatontown, 10-1.

“I knew going in we had a good team,” manager Dan Piscopo said. “This year’s 12-year-old team was much different than last year’s 11. We had a couple new pieces, a couple new important pieces.

“When all was said and done, Robbinsville was the team to beat. They won in this age group all the way up. And HTRBA was also a team to beat, they made it to the finals last year (as 11s).”

In the end, however, it was a story District 12 is all too tired of, as Nottingham won its 26th overall 12-year-old championship, and the fourth in the last five years. It never played Robbinsville, which was beaten in its opener by Bordentown and then beaten by HTRBA in the loser’s bracket final.

“We were kind of like the underdogs,” Melnick said. “So that got us more motivated to win districts.”

“Robbinsville was always the favorite and stuff because they never lost a game,” Muller said. “We thought we were just as good as them, if not better, and they ended up not going to finals. We never even got to play them.”

The make-up of Nottingham was certainly different with Muller and Melnick. But their presence did not just provide their talents. It seemed to put everybody back in the right spots that they had been used to playing as younger All-Stars.

Last year’s Muller-Melnick void had everyone trying to do too much and do different things. Their return, with a few other additions, changed all that.

“Knowing those two kids would be back drastically changed the lineup and the mentality of each other,” Piscopo said. “Plus we bring in (Anthony) Spadaccini, he’s a tremendous leadoff hitter. We had Mario Mazur coming in and throwing the baseball well and hitting.

“When that happens, the kids from last year don’t feel much pressure. Most of these kids have played together (before last year) so it’s different. Guys like Josh Lyons, Jared Brunow, Joey Swindasz, they’ve all contributed before this. This year they know what they’re here to do, they’re taking the responsibility and they’re going out and doing it.”

Muller was happy to be with his old pals.

“Last year, I kind of knew a lot of those guys because some of them were in my grade (in school),” he said. “This year it’s fun because these are all the kids I played with since I was seven.”

Since they were both major contributors to two district champions, Melnick and Muller were asked to compare the titles.

“I think both of the teams were equally matched,” Melnick said. “But I think we ended more games in four innings this year than last year. I think we hit better.”

“It felt kind of the same,” Muller added. “The teams are both good and we had chance to win districts both years. This year I felt the same about the team as I felt last year. Both teams could hit, but we did 10-run more teams this year, we hit more.”

Muller hit a whopping .667 with five homers, 11 runs and 10 RBI in districts, while Melnick batted .500 with two homers, nine RBI and six runs. Mazur had three homers, nine RBI and six runs, Gabe Santin drove in seven runs and Brady Plunkett had five RBI. Spadaccini hit .571 and Noah Raab went five for his first six in districts and sectionals. Rounding out the roster are Ryan Schwager, Dave Iorio Jr. and Ryan Mains.

It’s a cast that defeated its first three district opponents by a combined score of 46-8. But HTRBA deserves some recognition as well. After losing big to Nottingham, the Mercerville Gang eliminated Robbinsville after losing to it in the finals as 11s last year, and then took Nottingham to the wall as the game was tied 4-4 heading into the sixth.

The HTRBA outfit consisted of Tyler Coffey, Sam Crawford, Andrew Dusenshine, Jacob Fanning, Bryce Fremgen, Brett Hoffman, Jack Milazzo, Jaedyn Paria, Sam Raymond, Phil Rojek, Cole Southard and Tyler Springett.

“In the first three games, we jumped ahead early, the bats were working, we went out and got the job done early,” Piscopo said. “But give HTRBA credit. We knew going into the championship game it would be a different HTRBA team, and it was.

“But we needed that. We needed a ball game to see if we could face adversity. To see if we could be down and come back (Nottingham trailed 4-3). Would our pitching keep us in the game? Would we make the plays in the field? We needed that game and the kids got through it. They fought hard and got the job done.”

Melnick agreed with his manager, saying the team wasn’t used to playing close games this year but the HTRBA game prepared them for any battles it would face in the future.

Both Muller and Melnick felt this year’s district title meant more than last year, only because it was their final chance to win one. They have also helped build a streak now, as Nottingham has equaled the third longest string of consecutive district titles.

The league record is five straight from 1985-89, followed by a run of four straight from 1992-95. This is the third time a streak has reached three, along with teams from 1979-81 and 2000-02.

“It’s crazy when you look at it like that,” Piscopo said. “We went into this year knowing we had a possibility and we had the team to make a group run. We have a good mix of kids who can do a little of everything, which is needed.

“They know when you make this team it is special. Just making the team alone is a great feeling. There’s a lot of tradition and pride when you put that district uniform on.”

It also makes you the team everyone loves to hate.

“No one outside of this area likes Nottingham,” Piscopo said matter-of-factly. “People don’t come out to root for Nottingham very often and these boys know that, they’re fine with it. They know whoever they play will try doubly hard to beat us because you’re Nottingham. And they know you’re expected to give 100 percent.”

And giving that 100 percent is the best way to go from being an underdog to a champion. Again.