Call them the Fortunate Four.
In a pandemic-plagued summer where most folks were scrambling for activities in an effort to maintain normalcy, the Hamilton Township quartet of Nate Mains, Mac Meara, Isaac Acosta and Austin Boddie got to participate in two high-level baseball tournaments.
All four were key components of the Hamilton-Northern Burlington 15-year-old Babe Ruth All-Star team, which reached the state championship game before falling to Atlantic Shore on Aug. 12.
In July, Mains, Meara and Acosta were part of the Dirty Boyz Liedtka Trucking (Hamilton West) team that won the North Trenton-Bordentown region en route to a Sweet 16 berth in the state-wide Last Dance World Series tournament. Boddie played for the NJ Tigers (Trenton Catholic Academy), who fell to the Dirty Boyz in the regional final.
Those opportunities came after their high school seasons were wiped out by COVID-19 concerns. Not only did the tournaments give them competitive baseball, they allowed the players to gain a new gratitude toward the game.
“This whole COVID experience has made me appreciate baseball so much more than I always have,” said Meara, who was H-NB’s top pitcher. “It has helped me learn never to take anything for granted.”
Boddie agreed, saying, “With all the concerns, it made me appreciate the game more because I missed it so much when we could not play.”
Acosta cherished the chance to play again, and felt the backdrops—which both featured huge crowds—made it more special.
“It made me appreciate the beautiful game of baseball itself even more,” he said, “but also having good competitive games against some good teams added the cherry on top.”
For Mains, it was all about being in the dugout again, striving for a common cause.
“It really made me appreciate the moments you spend with your team,” the standout catcher said. “Also, (you realize) that the next game or practice or even season is never guaranteed so I made sure to leave everything I had on the field each game.”
The tournaments provided different scenarios for the participants. In the Last Dance, they were their teams’ youngest players so playing time was scarce. But it gave them a chance to play at some big-time venues. The Dirty Boyz played three games at Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park and one at Lakewood’s First Energy Park, while the Tigers played once at Arm & Hammer.
“Playing in minor league stadiums was such a cool experience,” Mains said. “Walking through the tunnels gave me a surreal feeling. Seeing the crowd in actual stadium seating was unlike anything else. From the jump, those games just had a different feeling than playing on a normal high school field.”
Acosta called it “an amazing experience; especially going to Trenton Thunder games since I was little and finally getting to play there for the first time.”
Meara also had a childhood wish realized.
“Being able to play in minor league parks for four straight games was awesome,” he said. “When I was younger I had always dreamed of playing at Trenton Thunder, and my dream came true this summer.”
The Tigers lone opportunity to play at Arm & Hammer resulted in a 7-1 loss to Liedtka Trucking, but it was still a fun opportunity for Boddie.
“I was actually super excited when I heard we were playing West because I knew I was going against my brothers in Nate, Mac and Isaac,” he said. “There was definitely some trash talk going on between us, but in the end it is all just fun and games because this is the game we love and the game that brought us together and made us a family.”
That family all shared the same dugout during the Babe Ruth states at Switlik Park, and this time the quartet would see a lot more playing time. Boddie felt he was well prepped.
“It was amazing to play in the Last Dance with my school team, they showed me great leadership skills,” he said. “That prepared me for my short season with my Hamilton Northern Burlington team.”
The bad news this year was that Babe Ruth Baseball opted not to have the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament or World Series due to COVID-related travel concerns. It was a gut punch to H-NB, which had reached the regional finals as both 13- and 14-year-olds and came scant outs away from winning each year.
“One of our big goals was to go to the World Series before it was all said and done,” H-NB manager Jim Petersohn said. “The first big hit we really had after the high school season was learning there wasn’t going to be the regionals or World Series. Emotionally I think it took everything away from kids and parents. We had been regional finalists two years in a row. We really felt this year was gonna be our year. So, they had to refocus and start to appreciate just playing the game of baseball versus their team goals for the entire season.”
H-NB opened with a 15-0 win over Mount Laurel and Meara threw a one-hitter in a 5-0 victory over West Windsor-Plainsboro. One of the best Babe Ruth rivalries in the state resumed in the winner’s bracket final, when Atlantic Shore posted a walk-off, 11-10 win in eight innings.
After taking a 10-2 victory over West Windsor, H-NB needed to win twice against Atlantic Shore in the championship round. Meara had another solid outing in a 7-6 win, when H-NB scored three runs in the final two innings. Disaster struck in the title game when Atlantic Shore erased a 3-0 deficit with eight sixth-inning runs for an 8-4 victory.
In comparing and contrasting the events, Mains said, “The two tournaments really had some intense games. After each pitch you could hear the crowd exhale and see how laser focused everyone on the team was.
“The big difference for me were the stakes that I was playing for. In the state tournament it was my last time playing for H-NB and I wanted to go out with a bang, to make my last season memorable. With the Dirty Boyz, I was seeing that same feeling go through the seniors. I did everything I could when I got in the game to allow them to have the best final experiences with Hamilton West that they could.”
Although the Last Dance participants did not play much for the Dirty Boyz, the fact they were able to get into a baseball rhythm prior to the state tournament proved invaluable. Mains hit .313 with a .522 on-base percentage and four RBI, while earning rave reviews around Switlik Park for his defensive prowess. Acosta hit .333 with a team-high eight RBI and two doubles, Meara was the team’s top pitcher and Boddie had a .444 on-base percentage and three runs scored.
“Defensively Nate just got a lot of experience, and he’s like a sponge when it comes to learning the game,” Petersohn said. “Isaac just really matured a lot this year. Isaac was a little injury prone before this, and I think he took care of his body much better in the off-season. Mac really matured and turned into a fine pitcher. The two outings he had were incredible for us.”
One of the team’s top offensive players was another Hamiltonian. Chris Nodeland hit .429 with a grand slam, seven RBI and six runs scored. His dad Brian, an assistant coach, was also key as he ran practices in Petersohn’s absence.
“Chris is a very hard worker, he spends a lot of time in the gym and for a smaller kid he’s pretty well put together,” Petersohn said. “It made him a faster, stronger player. The grand slam he hit was a no-doubter. He hit the ball very well throughout the whole tournament. He had some very big hits for us.”
Although he had just seven at-bats, township product Noah Rivera made the most of them with four hits, two RBI and two runs scored. He also pitched a one-hitter with eight strikeouts in the four-inning win over Mount Laurel. Rounding out the Hamilton contingent was Billy Sikorski, who went 2-for-6.
H-NB’s heartbreak of losing to Atlantic Shore was similar to the Last Dance, when the Dirty Boyz rallied from a 6-1 deficit and put the tying run on third with two outs in the seventh before falling to Brooklawn.
The setbacks could not take away from the overall experience.
“Both teams did amazing,” Meara said. “Both of the losses were pretty tough knowing how far we made it and how close we were. In the end though, I had a blast with both teams and loved it, I’m really going to miss playing at Switlik and for the Dirty Boyz. I had a really close bond with some of those seniors and they will definitely be missed.”
Mains and Acosta felt likewise.
“Both the Dirty Boyz and HNB players are all brothers to me and we all played the game hard and with a lot of heart,” Mains said. “The experience was extremely rewarding, I am very thankful for coach (Marc) Moceri for giving me the opportunity to play in the Last Dance tournament and also very grateful to have a state tournament in this crazy year.”
“It meant a lot,” Acosta said. “Knowing that I had the opportunity to play baseball during these crazy times is amazing and I’m truly grateful for everyone who helped us have a season this year.”