They truly were sunny days at Sunnybrae this summer.
Now in its 63rd year, the Sunnybrae Little League established itself as the pre-eminent program in District 12 this tournament season, winning two titles and just missing on making it a clean sweep.
Sunnybrae won the 10-year-old district crown for the second straight season, and the 10s had advanced to the elimination bracket finals of the Section 3 tournament as of July 18. The 11s won districts, while the 12s reached the finals before losing an eight-inning, walk-off decision to Bordentown after winning four straight elimination bracket games.
Throw in the fact that entering sectionals, the 10s were 5-0 in tournament play over the past two years, and the 9-year-olds finished second in one tournament and were in the winner’s bracket final of a second as of July 18, and it’s hard to find a greater brand of success across the board amongst area little leagues.
According to the district managers, it all comes down to a family atmosphere.
“We all have each other’s back,” said 12s manager Steve Maglowski, who is also a board trustee. “We’re all out here for the kids. No matter who’s coaching, we’re all down here as a united group. We have our bumps now and then but that’s just part of being down here all the time for each other. We always look out for the kids’ best interest no matter what. It’s like a family. We’ve all got each other’s backs. We root for the 10s and the 11s, they root for us, that’s how it is.”
SLL Building Manager Rob Riley, Jr., who managed the 10s, said that the close-knit atmosphere lends itself to loyalty.
“We have a lot of kids that play travel ball, but they stick together here,” Riley said. “Everyone gears things toward little league tournaments.
“Little league’s what’s important. Some people in other programs want to play Cal Ripken, some want to play travel. Growing up, little league was it, and we still have a group that wants to play little league. I think other leagues are losing some kids who are splitting their time with little league and travel. There’s not a commitment like we have at our levels.”
Vice-president of Baseball Operations and 11-year-old manager Anthony Zuccarello noted that is the expectation set forth with players and parents at the start of the all-star season. His team had nine players in travel and seven on a team that played in the USABL World Series, but aside playing in the series they focused all their energy on what was happening in Yardville.
“We missed a few days to play the World Series, but they never practiced with the travel team,” Zuccarello said. “It was those games only. Sunnybrae was first and foremost with everything.”
It is an attitude that starts at the top. Jean Anderson has raised three children in the league. She has been involved with SLL for 16 years and served as president for the past three.
“I really do think that Jean sets the tone and that’s the atmosphere that she projects and that she asks of us as coaches and board members to follow,” Zuccarello said. “With her it’s always what’s best for Sunnybrae. Sometimes it might not be what’s best for an all-star team but it’s what’s best for Sunnybrae as a whole. The all-stars are roughly 10 percent of your league. But we make decisions based on the group and we don’t just cater to one group.”
Zuccarello noted it is not just baseball-oriented, pointing out the league has movie nights at the field where the families get together and the players can just be kids; and it holds its year-end picnic at SLL rather than an outside facility.
If success is any indicator, it’s a philosophy that is working.
The 10s were an offensive wrecking crew in setting a District 12 scoring record with 70 runs in five games, while allowing just 17. They hit .484 as a team and won the final over East Windsor, 14-8, after EW forced an “if” game with a 7-0 win.
The team members were Joey Riley, Jonathan Posivak, Joaquin “Quino” Gutierrez, Dominick DeFrancis, Jayden “Big Time” Tirado, Cullen Bressler, Ricky Bender, Tommy Ditta, Xander “Bam” Pelzer, Allan Elliott, Aidan Knowles, Zach Myczyk and Raffaele Tramo.
“We’ve had the same coaching staff and most of these kids the last couple years,” Riley said. “We never look like the most talented team on the field, we’re a lot smaller than everybody else, but we field as good as anybody. To be honest, we’re more gritty than anybody else. In the championship game with East Windsor, we were down 5-0 and our kids thought they were up 5-0, and they came back and scored 14.
“We’ve got talented kids. As a group we always say it’s not one, it’s one through 13. It’s not the kind of team that gets mad if somebody pinch-hits. The kid that gets pinch-hit for is the first one up on the fence. In that way it’s a real good group.”
The 11s had a real good group as well, and will go for a three-peat as 12-year-olds after winning district titles in their first two years. Sunnybrae went 3-0 in districts, outscoring the opposition, 31-3. The team consisted of Connor Drudy, Anthony O’Rourke, Bobby Lipsett III, Joey Maglione, Ethan Eskow, Nick Conti, AJ Zuccarello, Frankie Mazzella, Josh Klena, Max Pelzer and Matt Morris.
Zuccarello feels aside from talent, chemistry played a big part in his team’s success.
“Some of these boys have been together since they were five, six years old,” the manager said. “They really have grown up together. They go to school together, play baseball together, play basketball together.
“When they’re not on a baseball field, they’re in somebody’s pool, somebody’s backyard. Rarely do you see one of them without another. It comes back to that family feeling. These boys are more than just teammates and their families are more than just friends. They become a family. That’s what it comes down to, in good times and bad, we’re there.”
There were plenty of good times for the 12s after they fell into the elimination bracket with a 1-0 loss to West Windsor in the opener.
That meant that Sunnybrae had to win six straight games to claim the title, and the boys nearly pulled it off in dynamic fashion. After claiming township bragging rights by defeating HTRBA and Nottingham in elimination games, Sunnybrae scored two runs in the eighth inning to overcome Robbinsville, 6-5, then scored two in the sixth and two in the seventh to defeat West Windsor.
Trailing 3-1 against Bordentown, the 12s scored two in the fourth to tie it and go into another extra inning game. This one was suspended by rain on Saturday and resumed on Sunday, when Bordentown won on a walk-off hit. But that could not take away from a captivating run.
The roster included Joey Ditta, Ryan Anderson, Drew Maglowski, Chris Whalen, Adrian Byra, Jacob Kemp, A.J. Maddalena, Derek Anson, Chase Porcella, Cole Manderson, Anthony Giglio, Nick Colella and Peter Lanausse.
“We’ve been in that situation before (of being in the elimination bracket) and we knew what the kids could do,” Maglowski said. “We knew they’d battle back, they’re resilient. We told them to keep their heads up. They dug their heels in and grinded through. I can’t be any more proud than I was of these kids, our fans, parents, everyone coming down and supporting us.
“They were warriors from the first pitch of the tournament to the last. We couldn’t have asked anything more of the kids. They just battled. I watched 13 kids become 13 young men and play as a team. These boys have a lot of baseball in their future. I’ll never forget this tournament, this group of kids. It was something special and I was glad to be a part of it.”
Much like everyone seems glad to be a part of Sunnybrae Little League these days.