After liking what he saw from the HTRBA 12-year-old All Stars this summer, Jim Maher thinks he may stick around for a while as the Nottingham High baseball coach.
Located in Mercerville, HTRBA is the Northstars’ main little league feeder system. Maher was a presence at every game when the crew from Van Horn Park rolled to four straight wins and their first District 12 championship since 2004 (and third overall).
“You could definitely see some kids who look like they can be good players down the line and a couple are (rising) eighth graders, which will work well with us because we have a big senior class,” Maher said. “Those kids will be coming to Nottingham in a couple years, and I plan on being there. Looking at that group, maybe I’ll stay around for the next four or five years. If I went and saw HTRBA get demolished in two games, maybe I’d last another year or two.”
As it was, the league took on all district comers before dropping two straight Section 3 games to Sayreville and Lincroft. Manager Tim O’Sullivan felt both losses were due to his team getting a steady diet of off-speed pitches it did not see in D-12.
“We ran into a crafty lefty curveball pitcher against Sayreville and didn’t have an answer to that,” O’Sullivan said. “We were really baffled by the stuff he had. He threw 60 percent off-speed pitches, and we weren’t able to adjust and weren’t able to lay off his curveball. In the districts, we saw a lot of fastball pitchers who mixed in an off-speed pitch.”
O’Sullivan noted that the Lincroft hurler was not quite as baffling, but noted that, “we just took too many fastball strikes and weren’t really smart at the plate.”
Nonetheless, it could not take away from a memorable July for HTRBA, which defeated Florence, Nottingham, Robbinsville and West Windsor by a combined 40-9. While Tyler Dunmeyer—one of three newcomers to the team along with Cole Given and Joe Lemly—is the guy everybody remembers for his tape measure home runs and strong pitching, it was a true team effort.
“We knew with Tyler and Cole we had real punch in middle of lineup,” O’Sullivan said. “We were looking for some good things from Mekai Ortiz, and he came through with his bat and made a huge throw against Robbinsville, which helped us get out of one inning that could have hurt us. Mekai was big. Uriel Sanchez, who we expected to have a big All-Star year, really came through. Joe Lemly did a great job as our catcher.”
It didn’t end there. Tyler Milton, Tyler Weniger, Nick Csillan, Noali Ortiz, Patrick Paterson and Joe Lee all made at least one key contribution, if not more.
“We pitched well in the districts and played really good defense and we hit well,” O’Sullivan said. “I was really happy bringing the three new guys on to the team. We aren’t a team that has been together and played travel ball for years like some of these other teams who play together year-round. We kind of saw that in sectionals. Those teams were used to playing together for 60 games in a year. They probably had a bit of an advantage I really didn’t focus on.”
Dave Edwards, who completed his 10th year as league president, felt it was a team that represented HTRBA in a classy manner.
“It was a fun ride this year,” Edwards said. “They were a really good group of kids who bought into Tim and Bob (Arimenta) and Gene (Palazzi’s) program, I was very happy to see the positives.”
Both manager and president take pride in the fact that HTRBA had success with smaller numbers than other leagues in the district.
“I’ve had some time to reflect on it, and I think with our size and the number of 12s that actually tried out for the team, this year was just one of those years where things just fell into place,” O’Sullivan said. “Times like this don’t come up that often where you really have, what I thought was a good group, one through 11. We knew going in that we had a good team in the districts and if we shored up our defense we could do well.”
“Any time we win the districts or even compete in the districts it’s a big deal to us because we’re such a small league,” Edwards added. “We have a lot less players to choose from than say, Nottingham, who competes or wins it every year. It’s nice to compete and bring home the banner and the Jim Davis Cup. It really brought the league together, not just the 12s but the whole league. You had the eight-year-olds looking up to the guys like Tyler Dunmeyer.”
As travel and showcase baseball continue to chip away at the fabric of community baseball and kids playing for their hometown recreation leagues at all levels, HTRBA has been fortunate to at least maintain its enrollment over the past six years.
“We’ve stayed right around the 220, 230 mark,” Edwards said. “Nottingham is up around 300, West Windsor is 350, Bordentown is 350. From a talent pool standpoint, we’re at a big disadvantage. But when we get to that 220 mark every year we’re happy. We feel that’s an accomplishment that we’re replacing the players that leave each year, and we’re not losing the players we have.”
Speaking of Nottingham, O’Sullivan felt that beating the perennial power from Hamilton Square provided an extra nice sensation for his team.
Edwards was not getting carried away with the championship and was not predicting this would be a common occurrence in the future. He feels this year’s 11-year-old team showed enough potential that they could be a threat next year, but makes no predictions beyond that.
One thing that O’Sullivan is fairly certain of, is that we could be hearing from some of this year’s champions in the future.
“I knew Jimmy (Maher) was there for our games, and I think that this is gonna be a real good class for Nottingham in two to three years when they get to high school,” O’Sullivan said. “I expect all of them to continue playing. I’m anxious and really hoping to see that they stay together and do good things when they get to high school. I think the talent is there.”
Maher is the first to admit that no one can safely say that an outstanding 12-year-old player will be a quality high schooler. The next few years are key to their physical development, and they must work hard at improving their abilities.
But the Northstar skipper is looking beyond talent when checking out his program’s future.
“They were athletic, and they had some good arms,” Maher said. “The key I always look at is fundamentally. The things that worry me sometimes are big kids that aren’t good fundamentally, they’re hitting 200-foot pop ups and you wonder about them at the next level. But I saw some kids with some good fundamentals with how they swing the bat and how they throw the ball and play defense.”
Aside from that, the former Nottingham LL and Steinert pitcher understands the importance of what winning a championship at a young age can do for the players’ confidence as they get into high school.
“You look at when we came in at Nottingham, we had to change the culture because there wasn’t any winning,” Maher said. “They didn’t win in little league, in high school and in legion. You absolutely want kids to come in who know what it means to win. That’s a big part of what happens at Steinert. They all come in with a culture of winning because they won at Nottingham Little League and Nottingham Babe Ruth, so they know how to win in high school.”
Edwards also feels the winning could help in the present, as he hopes the championship will encourage more players to come out for HTRBA.
“There’s speculation that some players who played with us early on and went to travel, will possibly come back for the 11 or 12-year-old season,” he said. “Time will tell if that happens. But at least there’s talk of it. That, in itself, is a positive for us.”