The Hamilton Little Lads 10-year-old all-stars sat dejectedly moments after losing to Alabama in the Cal Ripken World Series semifinals, but manager Dan Tozzi quickly put everything in a necessary positive perspective.
“They were so upset at the end of the game,” Tozzi said. “I told them, ‘There’s nothing to be upset about. You guys have done something no other team in the history of Hamilton Little Lads has done.’ They said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘You went to the World Series.’”
Indeed, no other Lads team had ever made it as far in Cal Ripken play. And that should mean a whole lot more to the players than one loss.
Not since the Nottingham Little League and Babe Ruth League World Series teams of the 1990s had a recreation baseball squad energized Hamilton Township like this one. The interest was widespread, be it on social media or by watching live broadcasts of the games on YouTube. The support was incredible, as the league gained financial help from local businesses and received over $8,000 in its GoFundMe campaign. It helped curtail the costs of approximately $1,500 of lodging per family for 10 days in Phenix City, Alabama, and that cost didn’t even include food and travel.
“With a nonprofit, it’s not like you’re just sitting around with money in reserve expecting something like this to happen,” first-year president Al DeLellis said. “So when they made the World Series, it’s like, ‘OK, we have two weeks before we send them off, let’s try and fundraise as much as we can and have the league make up the difference so we can get every kid there and the managers and coaches. We wanted to make sure the kids had no expenses. The parents would have to pay for from the perspective of lodging and getting there.
“The generosity from everybody went above and beyond to donate. The support we got was tremendous. We didn’t expect that much, and what we got we were overwhelmed with. It was fantastic the way the town just took us in. Historically, the town has been focused on other leagues sometimes, but it didn’t matter. They were just happy that someone was representing Hamilton and New Jersey. We wouldn’t have been able to make the trip without them.”
They not only made the trip, they gave the donors their money’s worth and then some. After running roughshod through the district and state tournaments, Hamilton was expecting much tougher competition at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals in North Tonawanda, N.Y. It never came, as the Lads went 6-0 and outscored their foes by a combined 79-13.
“They bought in,” Tozzi said of the league’s first-ever regional championship team. “They did everything we taught them in every aspect of the game. They were dialed in. I had a strong group of kids that just loved the game. They weren’t there because mom and dad wanted them to play, they were there because they wanted to play. They bought into what we were telling them, and we ran with them.”
The World Series, however, would be a different story. As it turned out, it was a near Cinderella story with Hamilton coming so close to the glass slipper.
Things started rough when the Little Lads went 0-3 in pool play. Fortunately, every pool team advanced to bracket play as they were just playing for seeding in the championship round. Hamilton fell to North Carolina, 6-3, Ohio Valley, 13-2, and Pacific South, 11-1, in pool play.
What the heck happened?
“I think, for a lot of them, it was their first plane ride,” Tozzi said. “I don’t know if it was the plane, the excitement, media day, all the cameras. Was it the big stage? Because I’ll tell you, the first three teams we played, I didn’t see a team any tougher than the teams we played in states. The only good team we saw was North Carolina, and they ended up winning it all. We had them on the ropes the first game until their kid hit a grand slam and changed the complexion of the game.”
The coaches’ biggest concern heading into the regionals was their players’ mindset, as they knew they had the physical talent.
“Maybe the kids kind of mentally started blocking themselves of anything, thinking maybe we shouldn’t be there,” Tozzi said. “We told them, ‘No, you guys do deserve to be here. In two of the losses, you beat yourselves, they didn’t beat you. Forget the cameras, forget the stage, it’s still just a baseball game. You’re here for six innings. Forget the cameras and your favorite pizza and your favorite player, forget all the fans ringing the cowbells. You’re playing a baseball game.’
“I knew they had it in them, I knew they weren’t playing up to their game. I watched them play 14 or 15 games up to that point, I knew what they were capable of. They just hadn’t played up to their full potential. I even asked them, ‘Is it the stage?” They said, ‘Well, there are a lot of cameras.’ I was like, ‘That means nothing. The camera ain’t throwing the ball, the camera ain’t catching the ball, the camera ain’t hitting the ball.’ And they actually came out and started playing ball again.
The results were eye-popping, especially to fans from the rest of the country who had descended upon Alabama and thought Hamilton wouldn’t be much of a threat after its pool performance.
The Lads opened with a 5-2 win over host Phenix City and followed with an 11-2 victory over California to land in the semifinals. In the semifinals, Hamilton carried a 2-1 lead into the top of the sixth before Alabama scored four runs for a 5-2 victory.
“If they got to the championship game, I was going to set up a viewing party somewhere in the township,” DeLellis said. “A place where everyone could come together and watch them go for it.”
As it was, the team received a well-earned celebration party at White Horse Fire Company on Aug. 25, where memories of an outstanding season were shared.
The team consisted of Jose Calzadilla, Asher DeLue, Chase Whitman, Anthony “AJ” Liberto, Noah Kerlin, Jomar Olivero, Rocco Valentino, Daniel Tozzi, Janniel Hernandez, Stephen Wright, Kaiden Hurley and Elijah Kerlin, along with coaches Daniel Kerlin, Chris Valentino and Stu Whitman. Hamilton had eight players bat over .400 including Valentino (.597), Calzadilla (.541), DeLue (.526), Hurley (.512), Hernandez (.500), Liberto (.480), Tozzi (.466) and Whitman (.462). On the mound, DeLue and Hernandez led the way although 10 players actually saw time. Calzadilla and Liberto led the way in the World Series.
It was a team effort from top to bottom, and the players were well prepared for the tough competition after playing up in the Major Division against 11 and 12 year olds during the regular season.
“In the past, it was only 11s and 12s together. This year all the guys on the all-star team played up with them,” DeLellis said. “They took some licks during the regular season, but ultimately we feel it better prepared them for their run once it came to all-star time. The competition got them to a higher level of playing field when they began playing age appropriately in the tournament. You saw how well-prepared they were when they got there. They were turning double plays like it was nobody’s business throughout all these tournaments. Their knowledge of the game seemed like it was above the threshold of other 10 year old teams.”
And it led to recognition the league has rarely gotten. The local media regularly covers the District 12 tournament that is the start of the march to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, but shies away from covering Cal Ripken or all-star teams in any league under age 12. DeLellis noted that enrollment was up between five and 10 percent this year, and is optimistic the high-profile run made by the 10-year-olds could boost that even more.
“A lot of kids think that Little League is the only one that has a World Series because it’s televised on ESPN and has a lot of hoopla around it,” the president said. “Hopefully, they saw this local team going as far as it did, and there is another World Series besides Little League. They see where this is something comparable (to LL) where you go out of state and get a life experience and things like that. We got some good press and articles that spread the word about the run we made, and hopefully that makes them more aware they can do this in another league as well.”
It’s the kind of good stuff that can happen when a team makes history.