JACKSON – The T-shirts are worn with purpose and pride.
They display the slogan of the Holbrook Little League All-Star baseball team: “W.I.N.”
The letters stand for “What’s Important Now.”
The T-shirts will be on display in Bristol, Ct., the site of the East Regional Tournament. The survivor will advance to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Located in Jackson Township, Holbrook will begin play 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 6 against Washington, D.C.
The originator of the slogan was Nevin Mann, a former Holbrook All-Stars coach.
“The slogan means a lot of things,” Holbrook manager Rob Grano said. “It means such things as thinking about getting a good read on a ball and thinking about what you should be doing during your at-bat. We try to stay in the moment as much as we can.”
The shirts were distributed to the players at the start of the tournament season. The team has taken the slogan to heart as it has won 17 of 18 games, capturing the 2017 Joe Graziano New Jersey Little League state championship, the Section III crown and the District 18 title.
“We talk about the slogan a lot,” Grano said. “Last year, we had T-shirts that said, ‘Team First,’ meaning it only matters if what you did helped your team win the game.”
Grano said a team must win five games in the double-elimination event to make it to the Little League World Series. The championship game is winner take all. The tournament will run through Aug. 12.
Does Grano feel Holbrook can wind up in Williamsport?
“Yes, I do,” he said. “We have been playing our best ball all year. We have been hitting the ball really well. Our defense is good. Our pitching is in a groove. We are a tough out. We smack the heck out of the ball. If we continue to play like this, we have as good of a chance as anyone to get to the next level.”
Grano said Holbrook is the lone team in New Jersey history to win the state title with its players being 10, 11 and 12 years of age.
“It’s one element that is unique,” he said. “We have a lot of internal pressure to keep going. The boys want to go to Bristol tonight (Wednesday night). They are very, very excited but we as a coaching staff try to keep them grounded as there are a lot of distractions. It is all about practicing for two hours and getting better during those two hours. That is the biggest thing, keeping away those distractions and being focused, passionate and driven. I have managed these kids since they were eight years old in all-star competition.”
There was a two-hour sendoff party for the team Thursday night. Team members posed with New York Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium. Frazier starred on the Toms River East American team, the winner of the Little League World Series in 1998.
“I am not surprised that this team has done so well,” Grano said. “We have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, but our opponents have also gotten bigger, stronger and faster. Most of this team has been together since the boys were eight years old. I am very lucky to be managing a bunch of boys who are this talented.”
The talent was on display in the state title game. Holbrook played big biceps baseball, blasting four home runs in a 10-2 win over Wayne at the Kittatinny Little League Complex in Hampton Township to qualify for the East Regional Tournament.
Garrett Drew, Tai Mann, Christopher Cartnick and R.J. Vashey homered. Mann and Drew supplied the pitching. Drew stroked two hits in three at-bats, notched one walk, drove in two runs and scored three runs. Courtnick, who was 3-for-4, plated three runs and scored two. Mann, who was 2-for-3, scored two runs and drew one walk.
“We have hit more than 60 homers in 18 games,” Grano said. “We practice our hitting probably six to seven days per week. All of our boys also play travel team ball. We have had games where our number eight and number nine hitters have hit two homers apiece. Our boys have practiced hitting the curveball for two years. Some of the pitchers we have faced have been very good, but if you make a mistake, we have boys who will make you pay for it and in big spots, too.”
Make no mistake about it. There is talent up and down the roster.
Drew, a right-hander, has excelled on the mound and in the lead off slot.
“He has a really great curve,” Grano said. “His fastball has real good movement. He throws hard. He is what I call a bulldog. He does not get nervous. He does not get flustered. He loves to get the ball on the mound. He has hit at least four lead off homers. He is strong and fast and he has a quick swing.”
Mann, a left-hander, is a top pitcher who also plays first base and center field.
“He’s our co-ace with Drew,” Grano said. “He is one of the best first basemen I have ever seen. He has a tremendous arm. Since the age of 10, he has thrown kids out at the plate on the fly. He can beat you in so many ways. He is one of those special kids.”
Cartnick bats third and plays shortstop. In a District 18 Tournament game against Manchester, he erupted for three homers and eight runs batted in.
“He is probably the best hitter I have ever seen,” Grano said. “He would have more homers if he did not hit the ball so hard on a line. He will also steal second base.”
Vashey is a large target at first base.
“He weighs nearly 170 pounds,” Grano said. “He is good on defense and helps us with his reach. He drives the ball a long way and can hit it out of any stadium at any time. He also gets a lot of base hits. It’s tough to get a curveball by him. He is a big, strong kid who has a lot of power.”
Charles Meglio plays second base.
“He probably has the smoothest hands and the quickest release of any infielder we have,” Grano said. “He hits homers and hits for average. He is very good on defense for someone who is as big as he is.”
Third baseman Chris Andrews answers to the nickname of Smooth because of his fielding prowess.
“He has a strong arm and is probably our number three pitcher,” Grano said. “He throws a good curve and a great fastball. He will throw curve for a strike on a 3-2 count. He is also a very good hitter.”
Anthony Abbonizio gives Holbrook a versatile player.
“He can hit anywhere in the order,” Grano said. “On any other team, he would be a starter. He makes the play on any ball he gets to and is good at third base when Andrews pitches.”
Dean Daddio closed the team’s semifinal win over Swedesboro in the state tournament in relief.
“He throws an assortment of pitches,” Grano said. “He can fall out of bed in the morning and still throw strikes. He keeps the ball down and also plays second and third and all three outfield positions.”
John Grano, whose father is the manager, gunned down a runner from right field at first base against Wayne. He also plays center, left, second and third.
“He is fast and has a strong arm,” manager Grano said.
Ryan Kinsman is best known for his speed.
“We always use him to pinch run,” manager Grano said. “He is very fast. He hits lead off when Garrett is not hitting lead off. He has never seen a fastball that he has not liked.”
Kinsman also pitches and plays shortstop, second and third.
“He throws curves, changeups and sliders,” manager Grano said. “He’s my little junkballer.”
Mike Arent made a huge play in the first round of the state tournament, cutting down a runner at the plate with Holbrook trailing 3-0.
“He plays all three outfield positions and is probably our fastest and most athletic player,” manager Grano said. “He has a terrific arm. He makes more unbelievable plays in practice than I have ever seen and he transfers that to our games. He is also very tough.”
Another tough player is catcher J.R. Osmond.
“He is a good defensive catcher with a very strong arm,” manager Grano said. “He is one of our best hitters. He probably hits the curveball better than anyone. He bats in the middle of our lineup.”
Andy Osmond, J.R. Osmond’s brother, patrols right field and first base.
“He gets more two-strike hits than anyone I have ever seen,” manager Grano said. “He hits lefty and sprays line drives all over the field. He can miss every ball in batting practice, but in the games, he gives me three line drives. He is a terrific hitter.”
The team’s assistant coaches are Gene Daddio and Jim Osmond.
“Gene coaches third base and handles a lot of the drills for our outfielders,” manager Grano said. “Jim and Gene always throw batting practice. Jim and I split the third base coaching duties.”
Manager Grano made it clear that he and his coaches are a team.
“We have a democracy,” he said. “This is not a dictatorship. I call most of the pitches. I usually sit on a bucket next to the cage so that I can get the signs to our catchers.”
Manager Grano said the team is a pleasure to work with.
“We have such great kids,” he said. “They are the nicest kids you would ever want to be around. I have known them since they were little kids. They are not arrogant. They are fun loving and respectful. They learn and want to learn. They are intense and passionate. When practice is over, they moan as they want to keep practicing. They love to play baseball.”
Hobrook, which is one of two Little League organizations in Jackson, is the fourth straight Shore team to win the state title, joining Freehold Township (2016), Jackson (2015) and Toms River (2014). Three of those teams – Jackson, Toms River and Holbrook – are from District 18.
“We are obviously there to win,” manager Mano said. “We ask our boys to give their maximum and best efforts at all times. That is all they can do. If you give your maximum effort and do your best, it does not matter if you win or lose as you will go home with your heads held high.”