The oldest two teams from the West Windsor-Plainsboro Babe Ruth League baseball matched each other step for step this summer on the deepest runs in their team histories.
Both the WW-P Babe Ruth 14-year-old team and the WW-P Babe Ruth 15-year-old team finished third in their respective Southern New Jersey state tournaments to pick up automatic qualifiers to their first Mid-Atlantic Regionals last month.
“It’s tremendous, and we reminded the boys both in baseball and off the field that when they’re affronted with something that they might not think they can do, if they prepare and work hard together it shows that they really can get through anything they put their mind to,” said 14s manager Andrew Liggio. “The difficulty in advancing, they were really proud of moving on, and we really, really tried to stress to these boys that it will help them outside of athletics too. Even in just the short window of the two months we had them as a team this summer, they got individually and as a team, they all got better and they came so far in that short period of time.”
The 14s team consisted of: West Windsor residents Matt Chi and Danny Hu, along with Cranbury residents Aiden Castillo, Jack Liggio, Kenny Schiavone, Chase Vitulli; and Princeton residents Jude Blaser, Jack Durbin, Peter Hare, Danny Harlan, Wes Price, Jon Tao, and Jake Zuckerman. Theo Steiger was on the team, but injured. Greg Schiavone and Jon Durbin were assistant coaches to Liggio.
“We had the all-star team assembled and we’re coming off a year at 13U where we were disappointed we were done early, but we had a whole new bunch of faces this year, some that had played together and some that hadn’t,” Liggio said. “I could see from the first couple practices very early on that they really played well and gelled quickly.”
The 15s team included Carl Birge, Christopher Cordasco, AJ Friedman, Caleb Kempler, Andrew Lambert, Max Lasky, Palmer Maurer, Owen McCarron, Connor McDowell, Zach Naddelman,
Drew Petrone, James Petrone, Jaxson Petrone and Lewen Sun. Flynn Kinney was also a member of team, but injured. Adam Naddelman was assistant coach to Eric Lasky, the manager.
“A whole bunch of kids really stepped up and played together as a team, which I think is really rewarding just to watch,” said the elder Lasky. “These are a group of kids that myself and Adam Naddelman have coached some variety of these kids since they were seven years old, and this was really the last year that we’d be coaching them in rec baseball with them aging out of Babe Ruth. To end on a note like this – we’ve made the state tournament before – we always seem to be with this group in the finals of the district tournaments and never quite won it. So to advance to the regionals in our last year was just icing on the cake for them.”
The 15s had to overcome some early setbacks to reach the regionals that were held in Somers Point. Even before they started playing in their state tournament, they were saddled with misfortune.
“We came into the season with a little bit different of a makeup,” Eric Lasky said. “We lost two or three players and added two or three new players that we’re very excited about. Unfortunately right before the season started we lost two of our pitchers to season-ending injuries so we’re sort of starting with a whole lot less pitching than we thought we would have.
“I won’t say we changed our expectations, but we were certainly going to be relying on fewer kids to pitch, and we were hoping that they’d be their best when we needed them, and that’s actually what ended up happening. We actually discovered a new pitcher, AJ Friedman, who we hadn’t relied upon as a pitcher, but pitched two incredible games for us in the two tournaments.”
The 15s showed promise even without their full squad available. They opened the summer by winning the Branchburg Tournament. That victory helped to set the stage for their state success, and even helped to prompt a new nickname, the Wallabies. Their new nickname brought the team closer together.
“They were noticing that all the other teams had a mascot and they were really upset that they didn’t have a mascot,” Lasky said. “And so the team got together, the kids without us knowing got together and said, ‘What could we be called?’ They decided we would call the West Windsor Wallabies.
“They embraced it and they kept calling themselves the Wallabies, Wallaby Nation ,and one thing we did after we qualified was we went out and got them hats so they’ve got hats now with a wallaby front and center, and we’re actually going to continue to play under the West Windsor Wallabies name as we move into fall ball.”
West Windsor residents Friedman, Kempler, Sun, Lasky, McCarron, Naddelman and Cordasco factored prominently in the team’s success. They were part of a team that filled in the holes caused by injury and other commitments and brought the group its first regional berth.
“I think we had a lot of setbacks and I think tons of kids stepped up and it was just great to watch the team really come together,” Eric Lasky said. “I would say this is the most fun we’ve ever had a team. This is the best group of kids that we put together. They just loved playing together.”
McDowell was the workhorse pitcher for the Wallabies and Friedman filled in and ended up pitching just one-third of an inning fewer than McDowell over the summer. The 15s got a lift from an offense this year.
“Our hitting was just insane,” Lasky said. “Our team batting average was .306 for the entire summer season which you really like to see from a team with five kids hitting above .400. We had for the first time kids hitting home runs on the big field, which was cool to see.”
Max Lasky homered in the regional tournament after WW-P showed in the state tournament that it belonged among the best. The 15s opened the state tournament with a 10-3 win over Millville which would go on to avenge that loss and advance beyond regionals to the World Series.
“I would say it’s an incredibly successful season for us,” Eric Lasky said. “I’d say when we started the season off with two of our four pitchers being completely unavailable, I’m not sure we thought about our expectations, but the kids certainly performed far beyond our expectations.”
The WW-P Babe Ruth 14s were cheering on their older friends while they were enjoying their own run to third in states and the accompanying regional bid earned from it.
“We were tested right away in the state tournament,” said Andrew Liggio. “We went 2-0 to make it to the semifinals and that was when we really started to get excited what might happen here. The semifinals, while we didn’t get to the championship, we were able to secure a spot to the Mid-Atlantic, and we knew that would be a tougher test but the boys are really looking forward to it.”
The 14s opened regionals with back-to-back wins on a hot Sunday in Hamilton’s Switlik Park. They stopped Frederick Co., Md., and then Piedmont, Del., outscoring the teams by a combined 30-11.
“We had an old school doubleheader,” Liggio said. “We played at 9 in the morning and 9 at night. The boys responded better than we could have dreamed. They were tough, tough conditions. We secured the win in the morning, we told them to go home and rest up, and they came back fresh like they hadn’t played and we end up mercying Delaware in the evening. We knew that was good enough to get us out of pool play which is really good to get the quarterfinal.”
Millville ended the 14s summer in the quarterfinals, but the run is fueling a drive to return and go farther next year for WW-P. Liggio thinks this year’s success could draw more players out for the team to combine with this year’s key contributors.
“Hopefully they’ll come back for their last year,” Liggio said. “We also told the boys a lot of times a team like this will have a breakthrough season and then it’s their last year. For instance, the West Windsor 15-year-olds had a breakthrough and they a great summer all-star season and they got to the regional quarterfinals. I told our boys they were really lucky to break through in that 14U year because they can come back for one more try at it. I think they’ll be determined.”
West Windsor only had two players on the team, but they were valuable.
“I had Matthew Chi, who was my catcher and outfielder, and I had Daniel Hu who was my middle infielder, shortstop and second baseman,” Liggio said. “Both were key, key contributors. Our offense led us the whole tournament, and it started with Danny. He was our leadoff hitter. He had a great batting average, and his on base average was through the roof. He really set the tone for the hitters behind him which was great.
“Matthew Chi, due to the heat and so many games back to back, I really ping ponged back and forth with the catchers, alternating days mostly because I trusted them both. Matt was great behind the plate defensively, when I had to move him out to outfield, he was great there too. Matt was batting about fifth in the order and had a great summer at the plate.”
There was no early exit this summer. The WW-P 14s played well from the start with a pair of tune-up tournaments before getting into states.
“I think we had a better buy-in early,” Liggio said. “We got the kids to buy into our game plan early, and our game plan was going to be defense first, hard contact hitting second, and then we knew we had good pitching but we were going to place pitching third and base running fourth. A lot of teams will have great pitching and then try to hit the ball out of the park 1 through 4 in the lineup. We have some kids that could hit it out – we had three during both tournaments – but we said if we can defend really, really soundly, we’ll, A) be in every game and, B) we can come back on any team. And then at the plate if 1-9 in the lineup can always make hard contact when I make my substitutions and just keep putting the ball in play and put the pressure on their defense, that was our game.”
The formula took the 14s to new heights this year. It helped that they had all the personnel that they needed to make a deep run this summer.
“We averaged nine runs per game and that’s even including one game we got shut out,” Liggio said. “Our offensive numbers were really good. It was just singles and doubles, singles and doubles, and keeping the line moving. And our defense was sound. We had a little bit of sloppiness at the end that cost us the quarterfinal game, but overall over the 12 games it was really sound.
“We knew we had four starting pitchers we could rely on for any game, but I was very comfortable pitching any one of the seven kids up on the mound throughout both of the tournaments, and twice we had doubleheader days so we really had to go to them.”
Many from the summer will move into fall ball as they look to gear up for next spring. Players from both WW-P Babe Ruth teams are mostly freshmen and sophomores with a couple juniors on the 15s team.
“Our 14s really know all the kids on the 15U team,” Liggio said. “And I think it was great that they were doing successfully just as we were because they were looking up to them and they’re like, ‘We can come back and try this again.’”
The 15s exit Babe Ruth after enjoying their best summer together, and the 14s have one more chance to see how much farther than an advance. Liggio is looking forward to his team representing well WW-P Babe Ruth for one more year.
“Kids play a lot of baseball, and I know all these kids are talented enough to play on a travel team on top of their school team, but the West Windsor Babe Ruth program does a great job of spacing it out, not overlapping with school ball,” Liggio said. “The regular season is great because they get to play with their school friends and play against each other, and then we turn up dial when the all-star season hits in the summer.”