It took a while, but Lawrence Little League is becoming a formidable figure in the New Jersey District 12 Little League Tournament.
In 2018, Lawrence’s 12-year-old All-Stars won the district title for the first time since 1976. Last summer, the 11-year-olds were district runners-up and the nucleus of that team returned in September to battle its way into the championship round before falling to Robbinsville at Sunnybrae Little League’s Ed Nevius Field.
The numbers are not entirely where the administration would like them, but the organization is at least making a name for itself after years of lying dormant.
“I think the league is doing very well,” said Mike Crowley, who managed this year’s 12s. “But the reality is we have ups and downs each year. We didn’t have a 12-year-old team last year. We only had three or four 12s registered to play. There was discussion of bringing all these kids up last year but they weren’t where they are now.
“It’s ebb and flow, but I think our 10-year-olds and 9s were solid this year. The team from two years ago had an amazing run, Last year, the 11s got to the finals (losing to Sunnybrae), and we did the same as 12s this year. So it’s been a pretty good run the past few years. We’re definitely excited about Lawrence baseball.”
And while this year’s run did not quite equal the 2018 squad, it was nearly as impressive as Lawrence had to reach the finals the hardest way possible. LLL dropped into the elimination bracket after just one game; meaning it would have to win seven straight to earn the championship. By comparison, eventual champ Robbinsville played just four games, and had a huge pitching advantage.
“It would have been so much different if we won that first game,” said pitcher/first baseman Aiden Crowley, the manager’s son and team’s top performer. “We would have had the advantage. Starting off in the loser’s bracket you have to pitch your pitchers a ton.”
Crowley was one of the top hurlers in the tournament but unfortunately ran into an equal on opening night. In the district’s most anticipated first-round match-up, Sunnybrae’s Josh Klena threw a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in a 2-0 win. Klena outdueled Crowley, who allowed just one earned run.
“We knew who we were facing that first game,” Mike Crowley said. “We were tight. We were facing one of the two best pitchers in the tournament, and he pitched like it. We played a helluva game and gave up one earned run and that was enough to lose. You put yourself in that hole right away and you know it’s a long week ahead of you.”
The coaching staff—which included Martin Sumners, Sean Willever and on-the-field strategy coach Ken Dobkin—stressed that the players could only focus on one inning at a time and not worry about the big picture.
“We knew we just had to win,” said catcher Connor Willever, whose brother Ryan, a former Lawrence High player, threw some batting practice to acclimate the youngsters to faster pitching. “We had to hit, score runs, play defense and try and get to the championships.”
The road back started with a 21-0 win over HTRBA. Crowley didn’t just have a career day, he had an entire career by going 4-for-4 with three home runs, two grand slams and 11 RBI. Drew Dobkin, whose grandfather, Bernard F. Rogers Jr., passed away just hours after the victory, went 4-for-4 with three RBI. Deacon Moore pitched a four-inning three-hitter and had three hits along with Willever.
“After the game I told Aiden ‘I just want you to know you sucked tonight, you didn’t hit four grand slams, you only hit two,’” his dad said with a laugh.
That was followed by a 9-1 win over West Windsor in which Crowley threw a three-hitter with 6 strikeouts and Willever had two RBI. Unfortunately for Lawrence, due to the pitch-count rule Crowley would not be able to pitch again unless LLL made it to the winner-take-all “if” game.
“He came into his own this year,” Mike Crowley said. “His control improved. He’s never had that before. He’s always thrown pretty hard but the control came this year.”
Next up was East Windsor in a rivalry that always caused a few upset stomachs.
“Every game with them ends in some sort of craziness,” Crowley said. “The last time we played them in a district game they had a walk-off win against us.”
It was time for revenge. Shane Mitchell’s two-run double helped get the game to extra innings and, in the bottom of the eighth, Crowley doubled home slick-fielding second baseman Shane Sumners for a pulsating victory.
That set up a rematch with Sunnybrae, which was coming off a winner’s bracket final loss to Robbinsville. The ‘Brae had used Klena the night before and opted not to start its second best hurler against Lawrence.
What unfolded will rank as one of the most memorable nights in LLL District 12 history.
In the bottom of the second Aiden Poot singled and Dobkin, who had come straight from his grandfather’s funeral, walloped a two-run home run. Two innings later, Crowley singled, Poot was hit by a pitch and Dobkin dropped a triple down the right field line and eventually scored on David Holland’s single. Moore went on to pitch a six-hit, 5-0 shutout in a game that would make movie script writers proud.
The victory was dedicated to Rogers, whose photo hung in the dugout.
“It was amazing,” Aiden Crowley said. “It was very emotional. Drew was actually crying.”
“We played Sunnybrae in travel ball and in districts and we never won until that night,” Mike Crowley added. “Then you have the Dobkin story. That whole emotion was built into everything; people were crying because of what Drew did.”
Not to be overlooked was Moore.
“Deacon has been a very good pitcher,” Cowley said. “He’s been our guy for the past several years so he’s always been solid. He’s got the best control and best location on the team. And Poot, who’s been one of our third or fourth starters, really blossomed this year.”
But a perfect storm worked completely against Lawrence in the finals on Saturday, Sep. 12. The players were emotionally drained after Dobkin’s big night, but had to return in just 13 hours to meet well-rested Robbinsville. They also did not have Crowley, Moore or Poot available to pitch. Nor was Dobkin or his dad there, as a larger celebration of his grandfather’s life was being held that day.
“Just the emotion that went into Friday night, and to come in and have to play first thing in the morning, you could see there was nothing left,” Mike Crowley said.
Throw in the fact Robbinsville had played just three games to Lawrence’s five and had its top two pitchers available, and it’s not surprising that RLL scored early and often en route to a 14-1 victory.
“It was really tough coming back after last night,” Aiden Crowley said. “Plus we didn’t have Drew today after he did his thing last night, that hurt us.”
As it is, Lawrence Township has plenty to feel proud about when it comes to their young players.
“They just kept fighting,” Mike Crowley said.
Correction: The original headline of this story incorrectly stated Lawrence Little League won 7 straight games; LLL won 4 straight en route to the District 12 title game.