TOMS RIVER – Sirens wailed. Sirens shrieked. Sirens pierced the air at decibel-shattering levels.
The Toms River East Little League Sports Complex was the scene of the “WELCOME HOME Celebration!!!” for the All-Star team which won one game and lost two in the 74th Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport PA.
The highlight of the celebration was a parade led by a hook and ladder truck from Silverton Toms River Fire District 2. Several other emergency vehicles from the township participated in the parade.
Waving to fans and wearing the uniforms they wore in the LLBWS, the players rode atop a truck from East Dover Fire Station 28. The team exited the truck to chants of “Let’s Go East,” as the crowd of an estimated 200 people roared. “Let’s Go Jersey. Let’s Go,” was another cheer from fans as the team stepped down from the truck. The club posed for pictures in front of the truck to more applause.
The team headed toward the field, walking through a reception line of fans and wearing smiles that stretched all the way to Williamsport while the popular baseball song, “Centerfield,” by John Fogerty emanated from the building’s speakers.
Several speeches honoring the team were delivered.
Toms River Councilwoman Maria Maruca led off.
“The boys worked hard as a team,” she said. “Each time I watched the games on ESPN, New Jersey (East) had the most fans and the loudest fans. We thank you for giving us an awesome summer.”
Toms River Township Mayor Mo Hill said, “You all truly got to live every Little Leaguer’s dream. You did us proud.”
East won District 18, sectional and New Jersey titles. It finished second in the Little League Baseball Mid-Atlantic Region Tournament in Bristol, Conn., qualifying for the LLBWS. The team wound up with a 19-4 overall record. The club rallied for several victories throughout the summer.
“I do have to say you are the Cardiac Kids,” Hill said. “You gave us all a heart attack. Baseball is one sport where you have to have situational awareness for every player.”
Hill said a banner honoring the team will be flown over town hall. Then, it will be presented to the league for its use. He added that the team will be honored with a proclamation from the council. Hill said he received a team hat that he opened when East pitcher-shortstop Joey DiMeo boomed a grand slam over the center field fence to supply the go-ahead runs in a LLBWS win.
“I opened the box containing the hat and Joey hit his homer on the next pitch,” Hill said.
East manager Paul Mika, the league’s president and the father of team member Max Mika, followed with a speech.
“Let me tell you,” he said. “We have the best District in the State of New Jersey. Each year, we get together at state meetings and say, ‘Who will come out of District 18? Brick? Toms River? Holbrook (of Jackson Township)?’ “
Mika said he enjoyed managing the team.
“I had an awesome time with these boys and their parents,” he said before presenting state championship rings to the team while its fans again roared their approval. “The Word Series did not end where we wanted it to end. It was a busy, tough summer. The team was tested for COVID-19 every other day. There was no Wi-Fi, no T.V. in Bristol. It was so difficult. We ran out of steam at the end. I truly believed we could have finished in the top four teams. The boys gave us everything they had. They did not quit. We got home Wednesday.
“This is one community. Myself and the team thank you from the bottom of my heart. I thank our board members for the incredible work that they did.”
DiMeo shared his thoughts after the ceremony.
“It felt great,” he said. “The whole team helped me go through this. I had a lot of fun with my friends. That helped me a lot during our games when I was down. We played our hearts out and never gave up. We always played our best. It never felt like we were playing on ESPN or ABC. It felt normal. We were very crazy and energetic. We were always bouncing off the walls.”
The team was locked down by tournament officials in Bristol and Williamsport.
“It was very hard,” DiMeo said. “It was really stressful being in the dorm.”
Paddy Matera, an East coach and the grandfather of team member Jalen McLean, spoke prior to the event and said the lockdowns harmed the team.
“I am a perfectionist,” he said. “We have the best team in the nation and Little League did us an injustice by locking us down in dorms. It took a toll on the boys. They are 12-year-old boys. They were not allowed to be with their parents. There was no physical contact with them. These are 12-year-old boys. They could see their parents through the gate and at game time. They went 17 days without physical contact with mom and dad. It’s not normal. On a scale of one to 10, It hurt the team to a 10.”
Matera said there were 4,500 Little League teams in the United States this year. Only 16 qualified for the LLBWS, which utilized a modified double-elimination format. Foreign teams were banned because of COVID-19.
“You play competition knowing there are teams you can beat,” he said. “It’s frustrating knowing you have the best team in the nation and it fell short.”
Matera said East had lots of team spirit.
“Our kids had a great core,” he said. “From our starters to our bench players, they all got along. We practiced since January to achieve our goal. When you are there, you want to win it all and unfortunately we fell short.”
Matera said he was impressed with Mika’s managing.
“Paul is an unbelievable manager as he is so in tune with the kids,” he said. “Paul is the dad. I am the coach. I teach the kids how to play the correct way. If you practice and play hard, anyone can make it to Williamsport as long as they stick together as a team.”
The team’s nickname was the Jersey Boys. Fans wore Jersey Boys T-shirts during the summer. Fans saluted their idols with balloons. Marissa Verderrosa, the mother of East catcher Jason Verderrosa, displayed a likeness of her son Thursday night.
“He’s my favorite player,” she said. “I was the team’s head cheerleader (she was often pictured supporting her idols on ESPN and ABC). This experience was an indescribable feeling. It was probably the most overwhelming feeling I have ever felt. They have played together for a minimum of four years and some have played together since they were in T-ball. This all-star team is also their traveling team so they are all very close.”
Verderrosa’s father, Jason, attended Thursday night’s event.
“The boys just played hard,” he said. “The team had a lot of depth, a lot of hitting. They had good pitchers and the bats were going up through the states. Defense was probably the key. This is the best thing that ever happened to me. When they were down, they pulled through one way or another.”
Jason Verderrosa hit a key home run in a District 18 game.
“It was his first swing in the game,” his dad said. “He hit it on the second pitch and it set the tone. We beat Holbrook under the Mercy Rule.”
Jay Mutter, an uncle of Jason Verderrosa, said he was impressed with the team’s play.
“Defense was the number one key to the team’s success,” he said. “The boys were very focused on team play. I am 60 years old. The win at Williamsport was the greatest single sports event I have attended in 55 years.”
One sign said, “Welcome Home TRELL You made Toms River Proud.” The sign was carried by Diane Wedding, whose sons, Chris and Matt, played in the league. Their dad, Dave, coached in the league for many years.
“I made the sign real quick, just before we came here,” Mrs. Wedding said. “We support the boys. We watched them for the whole time.”
Among the spectators was team member Carson Frazier’s father, Charles, a former Toms River High School South star who advanced to the Double A level in the Florida Marlins’ organization.
“Carson made a lot of friends,” his dad said. “He hung out with the kids from Pennsylvania, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Delaware. He really clicked with the Delaware kids. They shared bathrooms in the dorms and played hide and go seek. They did Instagram and shared pins. Even though they did not win the tournament, that’s – having fun – half the battle.”
Charlie Frazier praised national Little League president and CEO Stephen D. Keener for its handling of COVID-19.
“He did a heck of a job dealing with COVID-19 and making sure the games got to go on for the kids and their families and friends,” Frazier said.
Names and numbers of the team members lined a fence outside of the complex. One banner said, “Welcome Home Toms River East Little League Jersey Boys 2021 State Champions.” It was displayed in the front of the crowd as it greeted the team. Car and truck – one was as loud as a cruise ship’s horn – honked. One fan sported pom-poms.
Team member Dom Roma, speaking after the event, said team unity was vital.
“We had the best communication through most of it on the field,” he said. “Even if someone struck out, we all picked each other up. It was a real fun experience. When we played, all we did was have fun – even when we were losing we still had fun.”
“This was a special group of kids,” manager Mika said after the ceremony. “They have been together for a long time. They were so close in terms of their personalities. They were 12 best friends. We’d cancel practice and they would yell and scream because they could not be together. The first thing Max did Wednesday when we got home was go to Carson’s house.
“The sirens were awesome, impressive, a great coming home party. This was one heck of a run. I have a lot of special memories and a lot of special thoughts.”
Other team members were Cole Garrison, Adrian Bilotti, Steve Malato, Cailen Cimorelli and Tom Intintola. Another coach was Barry Intintola.
“I’m home one day and I already miss the boys,” manager Mika said. “I’m overwhelmed.”