Toward the end of July, the talk around town is usually focused on little leagues from Mercerville or Hamilton Square.
But when it comes to the Summer of 2018, it’s all about the gang from Yardville.
The Sunnybrae Little League, too often hidden in the shadows of Nottingham, HTRBA and even the Cal Ripken-partnering Little Lads, brought home Hamilton Township’s only District 12 title this year when the 10-year-olds defeated Robbinsville on July 10 to cap a 4-0 run through the tournament. The ‘Brae Bombers outscored their opponents by a combined 52-4, and put their two-year record at 14-0 up to that point.
It was the first district title for Sunnybrae since Joe Beczo’s “Dwellers” won the 11-year-old crown in 2013.
“I’m happy that we won, but for me it’s all about the kids,” manager Stan Klek said. “I’m happy for the kids, I’m happy for the parents. Next year when we get that banner up there and they see their names up there, that’s what it’s all about.”
The roster consisted of Bryce Bolognini, Josh Klena, Max Pelzer, Anthony O’Rourke, Frankie Mazzella, Matt Morris, Bobby Lipsett, AJ Zuccarello, Kaiden Hurley, Nicholas Angiolino, Nick Conti, Joey Maglione and Ethan Eskow. Klek’s coaches were Tom Klena and Jeff O’Rourke.
Klek does not have a son playing in the league anymore, but wanted to manage the All-Stars just for the fun involved.
I enjoy coaching the kids, teaching them the game of baseball; not only baseball but about the way things sometimes happen on the field. If something doesn’t go right, don’t worry about the last play, focus on the next play. You have to be resilient and bounce back.”
Sunnybrae was all about bouncing back in the Section 4 tournament.
After being dropped into the elimination bracket by losing 3-2 to Lincroft in its opener, Sunnybrae won four straight games before falling to Lincroft again in the final on July 23. The Brae forced a winner-take-all by defeating Lincroft one night earlier.
“Coming out of the loser’s bracket the way we did, I can’t complain,” Klek said the day after the final. “The kids did everything we asked and then some. I told them that score (9-1) doesn’t reflect on what we did. Hopefully they shake it off. Kids are resilient, they forget. More than half my kids were at the camp, they were fine, all is normal. It’s just a tough pill to swallow, you’re so close.”
The Sunnybrae 11s know all about being close, as they came within one win of giving the league two district titles. SLL won its first three games to reach the championship round. It only needed to beat Bordentown once in two attempts to clinch the title, and had already beaten the Burlington County team 6-4 in the winner’s bracket final. But Bordentown’s bats exploded as it won two straight by the 10-run rule.
Despite the losses, the showing of both teams put the league in a positive light. Sunnybrae hosted the 10-year-old districts and sectionals. Enrollment is up to 300 while surrounding little leagues are on the decline. There were only seven teams in this year’s 12-year-old District 12 Tournament, which involved close to 15 at the start of the decade.
“We’re doing something right,” Sunnybrae President Jean Anderson said. “I wish I could quantify it, but I’m not really sure. This is my 15th year in the league, my second as president, and one of the things I wanted to do was make it like a family. I raised three kids in this league, it’s my family.”
So, the league attempts to create a family atmosphere by catering to families.
“We try to be mindful that parents are busy, so we try to be friendly with our schedule,” Anderson said. “We care. I think sometimes putting that emotional effort into it is contagious. Good things are coming from it. We try to teach our kids, we try to make sure our kids are succeeding at the rec level and if they’re succeeding there, good things happen.”
Klek seconds the notion that there is a kinship developing throughout the league.
“We’re like family down there,” he said. “My son coaches with me, and I’ve been coaching in the league for 15 years. I enjoy baseball, I feel I have something to bring to these kids, because we treat them like they’re kids. A lot of these kids you see being treated like they’re Derek Jeter or whoever, and they lose track that they’re 10 years old.
“This is the third year I’ve been with the group and the second year I’ve managed the team and every year our kids have gotten mentally stronger. That’s what helped us out too. If they struck out they weren’t getting upset. If they made an error, they knew their teammates would pick them up.”
Rob Riley, who coached the 9-year-old All Stars, felt there were some good vibes with this year’s district teams.
“Rob said something that I danced around but never said when he said, ‘Why not us?’” Anderson said. “We’ve been around for nearly 60 years, we don’t have as many banners as some of our neighbors, but we’ve got a pretty good thing going on here.”
What also encourages Anderson and Klek is the success at the lower levels. There were 73 players in T-Ball, while the 8- and 9-year-old all-star teams were both successful.
“People want to come to our facility because they know we’ve got good things going on,” Klek said. “It’s time consuming not only for a coach, but for a parent to give up a July. If the parents are all in, it makes it so much easier, and our parents see we have something special.”
Klek also noted that most of the coaches are on the same page.
“We kind of have the same philosophy now,” he said. “For the most part the coaches generally care about our kids. We’re growing in numbers, we’re winning and competing for championships. I see good things coming for Sunnybrae for years to come. We’ve always been disrespected, and finally Sunnybrae is getting respect. I don’t think we care whether we’re getting it or not, but we know things are getting better.”
They’ve gotten good enough to be the talk of the town this summer.