The wins might have not come frequently enough, but just getting the chance to play baseball this summer was appreciated by Justice Jones and Tristan Ryan.
Both Jones and Ryan are one year removed from high school, and they provided a veteran presence on the youngest team that the Ewing Post 314 American Legion team has had in five seasons.
Jones, who played last summer after graduating Ewing High School, wanted to come back and play again in what will probably be his final year of organized ball. “I knew this would be the end of the road for me,” he said, adding that he also wanted another opportunity to play with Ryan and his coaches.
“He’s like a brother to me, and the coaching staff are all like my dads,” said Jones. “It’s like my second family. I said, ‘I have to come back, I have to have as much fun as I can in the summertime.’”
Jones had options to play in college out of Ewing High School, but he started working to help support his family. He worked to stay in game shape by participating in the team’s winter and spring workouts.
“Justice wanted to come back out and give us his all,” said Post 314 manager Mike Ryan. “He’s a hard worker. The opportunity to have another year of baseball was there and he hopped on it.”
Mike Ryan’s son, Tristan, is using the Mercer County American Legion League season to get back into the swing of things.
He was to supposed to play on the team at Immaculata University, but a dislocated shoulder on his non-throwing arm forced him to miss his Freshman season. He was cleared to return midway through and with the help of physical therapy he was ready to go when Legion began.
“It helped me a lot get back in the swing of things,” Ryan said. “It’s gotten my confidence up. These guys need someone to lead them. It’s a fun situation to be a part of.”
Ryan won’t ever get too far from a baseball field this summer. In addition to playing, he also is working as a member of the grounds crew for the Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.
“A lot more goes into it than I thought,” Ryan said. “You have to fix the bullpens every day. You make sure the mound is perfect. You make sure the lines are crisp, and you have to do it fast. You get an hour to have the field ready after batting practice.”
‘You have to play a role where I remind these kids my time is almost up, and their time is just beginning,’ Jones said.
Ryan said he has enjoyed being around the major league hopefuls. His own dream growing up was to make it to play college baseball. He’s done that, and now he’s seen the next level up close.
“It’s given me a new perspective,” Ryan said. “The players are so much different than what I’ve seen. They are so good. I get privilege of watching them at practice.”
Jones and Ryan are also helping to shape Ewing High’s future. They are the only two players who are a year out of high school, and another three Ewing players graduated this year.
“The previous season, we had older guys,” Ryan said. “The first year we played, we had all the older guys. Now I have to watch out for the younger guys, make sure they’re doing the right things and teach them to play the game the right way.”
The other 13 players on the Post 314 roster can return to Ewing High to play next spring. The other players on the team’s roster included Henry Hutchinson, Jake Storer, Jacob Basich, Mirone Miller, John Ulrich, Tyrique Alston, Dominick Salvatore, Cole McKeon, Daniel Guthrie, Dakota Ditmars, Stephen DeBoskey, Nolan Brokey, Riley Gregg, Anthony Yarson, Justin Dirk and Luis Figeroua.
“You have to play a role where I remind these kids my time is almost up, and their time is just beginning,” Jones said. “If they keep working hard and do what they’re supposed to do, it’s just the beginning for them. They have a long way to go.”
Despite finishing 5-17, the made strides to improve. They won one of their first five games and then had a lead on Trenton only to see that game tied, 12-12, when darkness came, and it had to be postponed. The team eventually lost that game 15-14.
“The first two games, we made a lot of mental mistakes in the field, like not throwing behind runners when they were too far off the base, not moving runners over when they’re in scoring position,” Jones said.
As the season wore on, the team worked on getting runners in, limiting errors in the field, being smart in the field and trying to think one or two plays ahead, said Jones.
These are lessons that Mike Ryan is hoping will stick with the players. As the season wore on, he worked to evaluate the best positions for each player and how the team could put its best nine on the field.
“It’s a young group,” he said “We’re kind of handcuffed with the fact there’s not a tremendous amount of experience, but they work hard and come out every day and give it their all.”
Ryan played mostly outfield, but also some first base and he pitched. Jones was a staple in the outfield, and his speed on the base paths as a pinch runner were helpful. Ewing as a team didn’t have a lot of power hitters and tried to produce runs with smart base running and good situational hitting and bunting.
In the field, Ewing had enough arms to handle the pitching load. This year, the MCALL instituted a new pitch count rule that follows similar guidelines for pitchers that was adopted by New Jersey high school teams.
Storer was the number pitcher, and behind him was Yarson. Other arms included Gregg and Figeroua. Also pitching were Dirk and Hutchinson.
Taking on the teams from the Mercer County American Legion League was is good experience for them.
“The top teams are the typical top teams,” Mike Ryan said. “There’s always talent in this league. It’s tough to knock out the top teams. And the teams in the middle, they’re always going to come through with a jolt. The league is always strong. It’s going to put teams in the district playoffs and we should have some in the state Final Eight.”
The fifth-year manager has seen Ewing at the top of the league and farther down in the standings, but win or lose it’s the chance to play that has been most beneficial to the players.
It’s the reason that players like Ryan and Jones return for one last chance, and the reason that high school players look forward to summer baseball.
“It’s a great experience,” Mike Ryan said. “They do play a ton of baseball. It affords us the opportunity to get them in different situations and see how much we can use each guy whether from a pitching role or a different perspective. We move the guys around and it gets the guys good experience.”