This summer marks 10 years since Lauren Fischer and Becca Freeman were part of the first Robbinsville Little League softball team to reach the Little League World Series.
The two pitchers from the 2008 team take great satisfaction in seeing how their breakthrough trip to the World Series has grown into the regular goal for every subsequent Robbinsville softball team.
“The talent was always there,” Fischer said. “The group we had just decided that we were going to go for it. Once we did it, I think it opened the door for everyone else.
“When you’re young and you see the people on TV and see ESPN glamorizing it, it seems so far-fetched and almost intimidating, but then when you know people that you know did that, you feel more capable of doing it. Us doing that gave everyone else the confidence to keep working hard because they know it’s really possible.”
Though both Fischer and Freeman went on to have success at higher levels—they were on the first state championship softball team at Robbinsville High School, and both starred in college—the 2008 RLL team remains a special memory for its significance in their hometown, where both still live while beginning their working careers.
“It comes up every so often, even not at softball events,” said Freeman, whose father Jim was the 2008 team’s manager. “It somehow came up at work last week. It weirdly comes up sometimes, not too often, but just often enough to remind you that you were there.”
Since their 12-year-old all-star team reached the 2008 World Series, where they reached the final game and took second place, four other RLL teams have reached the LLWS in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016.
“That first team was the team that really drove all the teams behind it, especially our team,” said Ed Horowitz, the manager of the 2010 team that placed fifth at the World Series. “We were so closely knit with that team, from playing with them in the regular season, as well as practicing and watching them. They created the foundation for all the subsequent success that Robbinsville has had. Not only in softball in Little League, but in high school and in other sports. I think they created a foundation within the town.”
Each trip to the World Series came with a new group of athletes motivated by those that came before it, and they all can trace it back to the 2008 team.
“It was great and it was a little scary to see all at the same time, to know how good they were and that we were coming behind them,” said Anthony Manto, who had a daughter play on the 2010 team, then managed the 2013 team with another daughter that also reached the World Series. “It put the belief and idea that they could do it too.”
Scott Veisz was coaching his son in baseball in 2008 for RLL, but was following softball closely because he also had daughters. In 2014, he was a coach on manager Mark Walsh’s staff for the only Robbinsville softball team to win the World Series, and credits the standards set six years earlier.
“That team worked so hard,” Veisz said. “Other people when they see something like that, they become motivated and they want to somehow hope to experience it. That’s a part of the equation. The other part is we are a very engaging town when it comes to the sports and people’s motivation to want to do well, and plus they raised the bar high and people are willing to put in the time and effort and the commitment to potentially see if they can reach that level, and things started to snowball from there.
“People wanted to shoot for something. It’s like putting a carrot out in front of you so people can say, can we possibly do that again? And that’s what started to happen.”
Fischer and Freeman were 10-year-old all-star players when they started to realistically imagine making the World Series. It was then when Robbinsville was starting to emerge as a softball power. Playing then under the Washington Township Little League umbrella, they won the District 12, Section 3 and New Jersey state championships in 2006 at the 10U level.
“I remember somebody saying, if there were a World Series for 10U, this team would be hard to beat,” Freeman said. “That was the first time I thought about it. I thought, if we won the state now, maybe in a couple years we can get to a regional, and I remember the World Series being on TV and I was thinking, we can get there. It kind of started from there.
“Me and Lauren Fischer would talk about it. Every time it came up, it was like, how are we going to get there? How are we going to make this happen? We were thinking about it since we were 10.”
Before 2008, there was no precedent for that level of success. Washington Township’s only significant wins even at the district level had come at the Juniors level for players 14-years-old and younger. Washington won a district title for the first time in 2004 with their Juniors team. The Juniors went on to win the state title in 2006 again. West Windsor had dominated a well-respected District 12 at the 12-year-old level with Bordentown and Florence breaking up their dynasty before Washington Township finally won a district crown in 2007 and also went on to win the section title. Along with a change of name to Robbinsville in 2008 came a change in expectations when they went all the way to the World Series. It started with their approach to training.
“We didn’t just come onto the field and win a bunch of games,” Fischer said. “When we were 12 years old, we practiced every day. It wasn’t just something that came to us. We wanted to explain that you have to work hard, it’s not just going to be given to you.”
Robbinsville has won nine of the last 10 district championships at the 12U level since 2008 with four more teams reaching the World Series.
“I think we were very lucky because we were the first ones to do it,” Freeman said. “Since then, they’ve done it so many times. We were lucky we were the first and it made it so much more special when we came back. The whole time we were trying to do it, we kind of had a chip on our shoulder because every time you watched the World Series it was always the teams from the South winning. Just to get to that final game and prove to ourselves that we could was special because we were the first ones.”
Softball has given Robbinsville another reason to be proud. It has built up its resources and raised its commitment to the sport. It’s what helped Robbinsville duplicate its success over the last decade, not have it last just one special year.
“Our approach was always the same,” Manto said. “If we were playing travel ball or Little League, we were always looking to teach the kids. I always thought the process of teaching the kids was the main thing and going to the World Series was the cherry on the top.”
Robbinsville has kept its groups together, improved together and dreamed of World Series trips together.
“I don’t think there’s a secret to it,” Veisz said. “It is the local girls that stay together and are training together through their 12-year-old year. I think a lot of people in other places understand the formula, but they still go and put more preference on travel. We use travel as a tool and mechanism when we’re younger to get better so when we come back to Little League and the all-star season begins—our tradition of participating in all-stars—we’re ready. Some other teams don’t come back to all-stars, they continue to play travel. Our tradition is to come back and represent our town and do the local thing and work together and see what happens in all-stars. That’s the key thing—we’re working together the whole time. We come back in June and try to represent ourselves for Robbinsville and Robbinsville Little League and it’s been successful.”
‘We left something behind to continue to push people to get better. We were the first for a lot of things in Robbinsville, but there’s been seconds, thirds, fourths.’
Robbinsville’s player development has also been remarkably consistent. The 2008 team started a trend with strong hitting and fielding that was put over the top by overwhelming pitching. The 2008 team had Freeman and Fischer pitching, and it was commonly offered that their third pitcher, Julia Borowski, would have been most teams No. 1. Overlooked even during that run was that they also had Erin Wojton, who had been the winning pitcher in the 2007 district championship the year before while playing up.
“We created a softball environment where pitching was really a big focus,” Horowitz said. “We had a lot of pitching clinics when girls were 7 and 8 and 9 years old. We would go to tournaments and have the three best pitchers in the tournament on one team.
“It wasn’t only the 2008 team, or the 2010 team. The pitching we’ve had in the town has been almost unbelievable. The softball intelligence the town has, that comes with girls playing from when they’re little and the coaching that’s passed down. It becomes part of how the girls are taught.”
RLL has embraced its softball legacy. Keeping its teams connected has also helped to inspire future teams.
“We would bring back Lauren Fischer and Becca Freeman and Christine Levering, and they were always great,” Manto said. “They would talk to the kids and show their support. Besides being incredible athletes, they were incredible young women as well.”
They went on to have success at higher levels. Among the players from 2008, Levering was a top soccer player for The College of New Jersey, Borowski ran for Yale University, Leanna Gearhart starred for Delaware, Fischer had a stellar softball career at Seton Hall and is now an assistant coach at Division I Monmouth, and Freeman was a record-breaker for the Marist softball team. Their achievements only began with RLL.
“It’s certainly the beginning of a great pipeline from Little League,” Veisz said. “Then they go to middle school and keep the momentum going, and then they get to high school and because they continue on down the same path of not only success, but commitment, effort, their focus and their love for the game, if you keep doing the right things along the way as you age year after year, the expectation is you’re going to be pretty darned good when you get to high school. It’s no surprise that they were state champions last year from the team that I was part of, and prior to us, the girls were state champions from the 2008 team.
“It’s not a surprise when you find the right path and you know the formula that works and you keep at it. You can’t just assume it’ll keep happening. This is a very tough game, it’s filled with lots of skills, and there’s lot of failure. You have to prepare mentally and physically often to be ready in this game. A lot of these girls have continued down that path and continued to rise to new heights and levels. That’s how they’ve continued to be successful, even beyond high school and college.”
The 2008 players were called upon often to recount their growth, and they were thrilled to be able to share advice and give inspiration.
“We did it and then other girls did it, and they were getting called on to pass on the tradition of telling their story and explaining how much fun it was,” Fischer said. “As we got older, there were younger girls that had just experienced it so it was definitely really cool for us to be able to share that and be able to push the younger generation to keep working at it. It kind of gave us an opportunity to brag about it a little bit. We always tried to be modest, but it happened pretty often.”
Even though Fischer and Freeman went on to have great high school and college careers, their World Series memories still hold a special spot. Freeman can still remember just standing in Alpenrose Stadium in Portland, Oregon, taking in the entire environment. She’s glad she took that moment in the midst of all the hype of reaching the World Series.
“It’s always something you dream about as a kid playing sports because that’s the highest you can go,” Freeman said. “It’s like being in the World Series for the Yankees.”
For a 12-year-old, that sort of experience is unbeatable, and nothing has made the original RLL team to break through with a World Series trip any happier than being able to share it with other local products over the last 10 years.
“I love it,” Fischer said. “I think it’s awesome. And seeing the high school be successful, I think that’s awesome for all of us. That just shows not only were we really good, but we left something behind to continue to push people to get better. What’s cool for the Robbinsville generation that I was in is we were the first for a lot of different things in Robbinsville, but there’s been seconds, thirds, fourths, people continue to keep going. It’s awesome for the town, and that’s something for the younger girls who are just starting to continue to work towards.”