When Chris Bluni’s family headed to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, he stayed in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.
The West Windsor resident wanted to soak in every last second of the WWP Babe Ruth 13-15 year old all-star team’s historic run to the World Series.
“It’s been crazy,” said the WW-P second baseman. “We didn’t think we’d ever get here at all this year. We just wanted to make it to states. Somehow we kept playing and fighting through and winning.”
WW-P not only advanced to states by placing third in the District One tournament to earn the final spot for the Southern New Jersey State Tournament, they won the state championship. Their state title was their first tournament win as a group, but they weren’t through yet.
“As we went along, everyone contributed their part,” Chris Bluni says. “That’s why we kept winning.”
They advanced to the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Niskayuna, New York, outside Albany, and won that to become the first West Windsor Little League or West Windsor-Plainsboro Babe Ruth team to reach the World Series level. The 2012 WW-P team reached the regional before bowing out. This year, the World Series was hosted by Lawrenceburg.
“We talked a lot about that, and the kids were proud of that,” says WW-P manager Sean Bluni. “In all these years of West Windsor baseball, no team has made the World Series in Little League or Babe Ruth. One of the other things that we hope comes out of this in our team is it stirs up more interest in baseball.”
“We’ve been fortunate that there’s been coverage of us,” he adds. “While we were down in Tennessee, through all the texts and emails we were getting, we realized so many people back home were watching us, rooting for us, and hoping we would keep advancing.”
He says that he hopes the championship run will help bolster the Little League and Babe Ruth programs and get more families involved.
“That’s really the foundation of having a strong program is having a lot of participation,” he says.
The WW-P team includes Bluni, Jack Dileo, Ted Durbin, Josh Eisenberg, Eli Foster, Austin Hodges, Justin Lockwood, Nate Millinger, Ian Muni, Jake Naddelman, Judd Petrone, Luke Potts, Will Raeter, Andrew SantaMaria. Coaching with Sean Bluni were Tom Dileo and Mike Potts.
“I think the key this year to differentiate us from years before was definitely our pitching,” said Lockwood, who played third base and catcher. “We had two big lefties. Our pitching depth was a lot better than in the past. When we had to play four games in a row, it gave us an advantage.”
Timely hitting also helped put pressure on other teams and take pressure off their pitchers.
WW-P came within two games of the World Series final. They went 3-1 in pool play to take second in their pool. They fell in the World Series quarterfinals, 7-3, to the Ohio Valley champion Janesville, Wisconsin.
“It’s really been an incredible ride,” Sean Bluni said. “It was really unexpected, unanticipated, but really great all-around. It’s been really exciting for all the players and all the families. We sort of just kept going and every time it was that much more unexpected and that much more enthusiasm building.”
The World Series participants were treated like royalty in Lawrenceburg. They attended an opening ceremony, a banquet for the teams and started the competition with a fun skills contest.
“Until you get there and see all the events, and pageantry leading up to the first game, it doesn’t set in [that they had made it to the World Series],” the elder Bluni said. “We were there four full days before we played a game. You get there and see there are all sorts of activities and see the other teams—California, Florida and Wisconsin. All of a sudden, you start to realize what you’ve achieved and accomplished together.”
The team found time to bond further between their game schedule. They had the first two days off with a bye and a rainout before they got into pool play. They tried to find things to do together when they weren’t playing.
The WW-P team showed up to the World Series with confidence that had grown with each stage over the summer. They felt good about being competitive in a difficult district when they weren’t at full strength, then started building momentum in states.
Sean Bluni said the team had a tough first-round draw, playing against two-time defending champion Millville, which had won as 13s and 14s.
“We went in there and we won that game and the kids started to understand we could play with anybody, we could beat anybody if we play well and get contributions from everybody on the team,” he said. “That became our approach to every game—everybody on the team find a way to do something to help the team win.”
That trend continued in the regional. WWP was unbeaten in pool play and cruised through the quarterfinals and semifinals to set up a final against Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. WWP had a 4-0 lead before Mifflin tied it late in the game, but in the seventh inning WWP loaded the bases and Ian Muni’s base hit ended the game in walk-off fashion.
“I would say after the regional tournament we felt more confident,” Lockwood said. “We played some tough teams in that regional and fought through. The first couple games, we’d be losing in the early innings and keep fighting and come out on top in the end which gave us confidence our team was legit.”
The regional win was all the sweeter because Mifflin County had come in talking confidently about winning and going to the World Series. Instead, it was the upstarts from WWP making history in an area hungry for baseball success.
“It’s great for us,” said Chris Bluni, who will be a junior at High School South. “We feel like we’ve actually made a difference for what we feel like was the slowly deteriorating baseball program. We feel like we helped the baseball program stay alive and hopefully we’ll get more people to play in the future.”
Chris has been playing baseball with some of his teammates since he was 7 years old. The core of the team has stayed together and added some players from Plainsboro and Princeton to make up this year’s Babe Ruth team, but that core helped them make history.
Along their run, they had obstacles. They didn’t even win the district, they were shorthanded in many games, and they found themselves trailing early in a lot of games before they came back. Through it all, they kept playing up to their potential.
“It definitely tells the schools how numbers don’t matter at all,” said Lockwood, who will be a sophomore at High School North. “Throughout the tournament, I don’t think we had more than 11 kids. We’d go and play teams that had more than 20 and we’d be right with them. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.”
Sean Bluni said that he saw that more out of this group of players than he has in previous summers.
“As time goes on, they’re going to understand the magnitude of what they accomplished,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll use that going forward in their baseball careers and in life in general, the whole idea of working together as a team, putting in the effort and never quitting.”