OCEAN COUNTY – It’s an event that will result in a lifetime of memories–win or lose–for the Holbrook Little League All-Stars.
The team will begin play 3 p.m. Thursday in the 71st Little League Baseball World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. It will go against Fairfield (Ct.) in the United States bracket at the Howard J. Lamade Stadium.
Two teams from Ocean County have gone all the way.
The Toms River East American All-Stars, led by the sparkling all-around play of Todd Frazier (now the New York Yankees’ starting third baseman after starring at Toms River High School South, Rutgers University and two other major league clubs) prevailed in 1998.
The Lakewood Little League All-Stars won the national title in 1975 when foreign teams were banned from play because of eligibility issues.
One person who knows a thing or two about pressure and memories is Dion Lowe, whose power hitting and blazing fastball propelled Lakewood to immortality.
“Enjoy the journey,” he advised Holbrook, located in Jackson Township. “Have fun. When it is all said and done, you are winners. I love this tournament. The kids get to have fun. There is their innocence. There is pressure, but they don’t really feel it as it is all fun. There is more pressure on the parents than there is on the kids. The parents feel more pressure because every parent wants their child to succeed and get a hit. They don’t want their child to be the reason their team lost the game.”
Lowe watched Holbrook advance to the LLBWS with a win over the Maryland state champion in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament final on ESPN on Saturday night.
“I love Holbrook’s team spirit,” he said. “I just think they are winners. Go out there and play ball. They took the sting out of that Maryland team. They understood once Holbrook put that seven spot – that crooked number – on the board that it was it. I am really pulling for them and I can’t wait to watch.”
Lowe credited Lakewood co-managers Dick Work and Butch Belitrand and coach Alex Edwards for keeping the team mentally sharp.
“We did not feel any pressure,” said Lowe, who pitched and played third base and shortstop. “They did a good job of keeping us on an even keel. They prepared us and worked our behinds off. We had no time to worry about pressure.”
Lowe, who resides in Atlanta where he works in the behavioral health field, said the coaching staff read the team telegrams to loosen it up.
“They expressed well wishes from all over the place whether they were from people from either Lakewood or Jackson,” he said. “They read them to us before we went to bed and that is why I don’t think anyone felt anything. The telegrams arrived on yellow pieces of paper. Our coaches had them in a stack. Everyone congratulated us for getting that far. It was best of luck stuff. It was really cool how our coaches tempered the pressure.”
Ken Kondek, an East American coach, offered advice for Holbrook.
“Just have fun,” he said. “For most of the kids, this is a once in a lifetime experience. When I was in Williamsport, it was probably the best vacation I ever had. Enjoy it. You will have memories that you will never forget. This group created a bond and that bond is still there. All of the boys still talk to one another. Todd texts his friends and they text him back. They are still in touch like it was yesterday.”
East American was managed by Mike Gaynor. Another coach was Joe Franceschini, whose son, Joe, was a team member.
“Our job as coaches was to keep the boys loose,” Kondek said. “Have fun, Holbrook, and enjoy the experience. You can only be 12 years old once in your life. How many times will you go to Williamsport as a player?”
East American’s starting catcher was Brad Frank, whose father, Bill, enjoyed a highly successful coaching career at Toms River High School East where he piloted the Raiders’ baseball team. The elder Frank said 10 family members attended each game in Williamsport where East American was 5-0.
“The key is for the coaches to keep it fun for the boys, especially at that age,” the elder Frank said. “Have fun, keep the pressure off and they will produce. I think Mike Gaynor did a good job with that. It was like it was magical. It was like something you see in the movies. Everything fell into place.”
“Coach Franceschini did a great job with the kids,” Kondek said. “He kept them loose. We jumped into the pool with them and played ping pong. Todd (the winning pitcher in the championship game) was our ping pong champion as he took on everyone. We played chicken in the pool. One reporter said, ‘You guys are in the pool and Japan (which lost to East American in the championship game) is out there practicing.’ We said, ‘OK.’ ”
Rich Cunningham, an avid East American fan, also kept the team loose, donning a gorilla outfit. His attire resulted in the team being known as the Beast of the East.
“Casey Gaynor (a team member and a son of Gaynor’s) won a beast doll at the Eastern Regionals in Connecticut and it became our mascot,” Kondek said. “Rich was just a parent who was interested in the team. He did not even have a child on the team. All I know is that our kids had a lot of fun. Some kids got homesick and some did not, but that’s par for the course. The boys all bonded and it is still like one big happy family.”
Lakewood’s winning pitcher was Bobby DelConte, who offered Holbrook advice.
“Don’t lose and if you lose don’t cry,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated by what the other teams do or how big they are or whatever. We played against teams that had big kids. Just block it all out. You are there for a reason and you are gonna win. Say this, ‘We’ve come this far. Let’s win it all. We did not come all of this way to lose.’ ”
East American’s other team members were Scott Fisher, Eric Campesi, Chris Cardone, Chris Crawford, Mike Belostock, Gabe Gardner, R.J Johansen and Tom Gannon.
Also on the Lakewood roster were Richard DelConte, Gary Edwards, Marc Goldenberg, Kenneth Lawrence, Alex Mendez, Scott Moresco, John Reizer, Wayne Richardson, Scott Schulman, George Starr, Jay Teitelbaum, Richard Work and Paul Zabarsky.
The teams received numerous honors from the sports, entertainment, business and political arenas.
Teitelbaum, an outfielder, urged Holbrook to enjoy the tournament.
“Enjoy every minute of it,” he said. “When you are between the lines on the field take it seriously and just realize you are going to remember this for the rest of your lives. They certainly should enjoy the surroundings of Williamsport and take it all in. Don’t let that pass you by. It was an incredible experience.”
The game will be shown live on ESPN. The LLBWS will consist of 16 teams. Howard J. Lamade Stadium can handle 40,000 fans.
The Little League Baseball World Series Picnic took place Wednesday at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Also on Wednesday was the Little League Baseball World Series Grand Slam Parade in Williamsport. The Grand Marshall was Eddie Murray, a baseball Hall of Famer.
Holbrook said on its Facebook page it is grateful for the support it has received from Jackson.
“Many thanks go out to our brothers and sisters at the Knights of Columbus for organizing and hosting last night’s (last Saturday night) viewing party to see our boys in the Mid-Atlantic championship!!
“And thanks to all of the restaurants around Jackson who generously donated food for the night!!”