Zach Bregenzer played his final baseball game of the summer on Aug. 13. Three days later, he was driving to Penn State-Abington to begin his college career.
“Not too much time in between,” the pitcher said. “But it was definitely worth it.”
Those thoughts were shared by the entire Hopewell Valley Post 339 team, as the players did not get much beach time but still created outstanding memories for a lifetime in reaching the American Legion World Series and playing on national TV. After going 1-2 in Shelby, North Carolina, Hopewell finished fifth out 3,640 legion teams in the nation and became the second Mercer County team to win a World Series game since the Trenton Schroths in 1948. (Hamilton also won a World Series game in 2000.)
Manager Mike Coryell’s team won the first New Jersey State and Mid-Atlantic Region titles in program history, and its 39 wins were the most since at least 1948 and probably of all time. General Manager Mike Olshin could not find records beyond that point, but it’s highly doubtful teams played that many games back then.
The team has won 91 games in the three years Coryell and Olshin have been in charge, and 71 over the past two years.
“At the beginning of the season we set a goal to win the state title and it was a pleasure to do that,” said Chris DeClerico, who hit. .375 with 32 RBI. “To move on and keep going, it was just unbelievable. Just amazing to be a part of.”
Will Karp called the entire journey “kind of surreal.”
“It didn’t really make any sense,” said Karp, who hit .405 with 28 RBI. “Our goal all year was win states, that was really our mantra. When we did that, it became kind of a joke, that we were playing with house money. And after that we were just having fun. Let’s play the game, see what happens. We’d never been there before, our coaches never had. It was all new.
“We won states; regionals went well, our pitching worked out well and we pulled it out. From that point it made no sense at all. We just made it to the World Series! I still think it hasn’t really hit us. It was like ‘what the heck?’ I don’t even know how to describe it.”
‘We’ve been together since we were eight years old… That’s what carried us through regionals.’
One description is that Hopewell was a throwback team.
In the ever-changing landscape that has seen an alarming rate of players bail on legion and Babe Ruth to play travel and showcase baseball, Hopewell was a tribute to players who stick together from Little League and beyond, and put their team first. Karp, Bregenzer, DeClerico, Cameron Cane (.385, 38 RBI) and Josh deDufour (.333, 22 RBI) were all three-year players, which used to be commonplace but has become a rarity.
“The difference between this and any travel ball is we’ve been together since we were eight years old,” Karp said. “That chemistry can’t compete with travel ball for one summer. It was a lot of fun, all those guys were good friends of mine, and I think that’s what carried us through regionals. We liked each other, we could live with each other. We enjoyed it. You got a lot of teams that probably don’t have that. They may have a lot of talent, but we have some guys that want to do it for each other.”
Karp noted that most of the eight teams at the regionals and ALWS were made up of players from numerous towns and schools, whereas Post 339 was pretty much a one-town team save for a few plug-ins.
“You would ask players what schools they came from and it was all random,” he said. “When you asked our guys it was ‘Hopewell Valley, Hopewell Valley, Hopewell Valley.’ It was really cool. Were just this little Hopewell, we don’t have much, so it means a lot more to us.”
The key came prior to the season when Karp and DeClerico, both coming off successful college seasons, opted for legion instead of a collegiate league. They mulled it over and it became a case of “If you play, I’ll play” and vice versa. DeClerico finally texted Karp that he was in, and everything fell into place.
“I would have either had to move away from home and play in Maryland, or make an hour and a half ride down the shore to play in a league with my college buddies,” DeClerico said. “But I wanted one more year to play with these guys, especially Karp.”
Hopewell was coming off a 32-win season and reached the state semifinals before losing to powerful Brooklawn. Coryell and Olshin gathered the team before the season and impressed upon them how special the year could be
And it was, but it didn’t come easy.
Lost in the euphoria of the ride is that Hopewell was one loss away from not even returning to the state’s Final Eight. Post 339 finished the regular season tied for third with Bordentown. It was then stunned by Deptford in the district opener, meaning Hopewell had to win four straight or go home before July even ended.
Post 339 responded by winning two straight blowouts before eking out two-run wins over Cherry Hill and Washington Township on the same day.
“We had our backs against the wall in the entire district tournament,” DeClerico said. “We made it out and eventually got second. I feel like it was definitely the first game of our district tournament that was the key. That made us realize we gotta start executing the little things and doing the small things. That was gonna help us out in the long run.”
Hopewell finally gained that elusive state title; losing just one pool game before beating Bordentown in the semifinals and Hamilton in the championship game. Luke Blair earned tournament MVP honors en route to hitting .410 with 37 RBI for the season.
“We knew we were gonna be good it was just whether we’d be able to make it over that little hump of winning states and being a really good team,” said Bregenzer, the team’s ace at 11-2 with a 2.30 ERA. “Coming in I thought we could win the states and make a little noise in regionals but not too much. Obviously that changed.”
‘We know we’re always there for each other… If we all stayed together we knew we were gonna do something.’
Hopewell needed the “if” game to win the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Virginia, with Chase Fleming hurling the victory over Ephrata, Pa. in the title game. Bregenzer notched two wins to gain tournament MVP.
“I wasn’t really expecting it, but when they called my name it was great,” Bregenzer said.
It was on to North Carolina, where the first pool game was being streamed on ESPN3 and the next two were televised on ESPNU.
“That was awesome,” Bregenzer said. “We knew a lot of our friends and family were watching. In the beginning I’m sure everyone had some nerves and it takes an inning to get over it but you have to put it behind you and just act like it’s a regular game.”
DeClerico said it “took an at-bat or two” to get the nerves out, but Karp had a different take, saying “It wasn’t nerves, it was fun. You get to live the life of a Major League baseball player for three days. You’re on TV, you sign some baseballs, you high five some people. Why be nervous? Enjoy it.”
Unfortunately, the express slowed as Hopewell lost consecutive 3-run decisions to Randolph County, NC and Bryant, Ark., to dash their hopes of reaching bracket play. It was fitting, however, that they won their final game of this historic year by hanging on to beat Lewiston, Id., 7-5, in the final game.
In a touch of class, Coryell replaced Karp and DeClerico with two outs in the seventh so they could come off the field to an ovation in their final game. Sadly, neither ESPN broadcaster could figure out the intention as they were baffled by what was being done and did not give Coryell his just due.
But the players knew.
“Coryell’s a pain with that stuff, he’s one for the dramatics,” Karp said with a laugh. “But that was a really special moment. It was really awesome just walking out with Chris in our final legion game with a good crowd. It was sad but it was awesome to have that moment.”
“It was honestly unbelievable to walk out on that note,” DeClerico said. “I really appreciate what coach did.”
And while Coryell has his critics (what manager doesn’t?), the Hopewell veterans were not among them.
“It’s been fun playing for him,” DeClerico said. “Personally, I think he does a great job with the kids. We have a good relationship so it’s pretty cool. He lets us play our game. He wants everyone to succeed so it’s just that much cooler.”
Although he jokingly referred to the dramatics a pain, Karp was quick to say, “I love Coryell. He’s gonna bring attention to you in good ways, bad ways, whatever. But he’s gonna be himself and be true to that, and you want him on your side whether you like him or not. He will back you up blindly, that’s a great thing to have in a head coach.”
Bregenzer assured all the naysayers, assuring that “We believe in him, and he believes in us. He’s a big reason for what we did.”
Coryell’s coaches were his daughter Ally, Carl Benedetti Jr., Byron Kou and Michael Reardon. Rounding out his memorable cast of regulars were Sam Margulis, the team’s leading hitter (.434) and run scorer (49), Dominick Gambino (9-1, 2.38), who set a Mercer County record by winning his first 18 American Legion decisions, Andy Blake (.331), Drew Brodine (.273), Jeff Bartlett (.308), Nick Psomoras (.317, 36 RBI) and Tom Pecora (.329). Providing pitching depth were Fleming (6-3. 2.98) and Blake (2-1, 2 saves).
But this was a season that went beyond statistics. It was a bunch of lifelong friends coming together for success in their last go-around together.
“We know we’re always there for each other and want to do what’s best to make the team successful,” Bregenzer said. “If we all stayed together we knew we were gonna do something.”
They did something all right. Something that had never been done before.