Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 28
 
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
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SPECIAL DELIVERY: Princeton 12-year-old star pitcher Michael Dunlap delivers a pitch during a game in the District 12 Little League Tournament. Dunlap produced one of the pitching gems of the tournament as he hurled Princeton to a 3-1 win over powerful Sunnybrae in Pool B play. Dunlap's mound heroics helped Princeton make it to the tourney's Final Nine.

Resilient Princeton Little League 12s Turned Heads in Advancing to Final 9

Lance Williams

Coming into this year's New Jersey District 12 Little League Tournament, few gave the Princeton 12-year-old all-star team a chance to advance out of Pool B over traditional powerhouses like Sunnybrae, Washington Township, Florence and Chambersburg.

Even fewer gave Princeton a chance after losing its first two games to Florence, 11-2, and Cranbury/Plainsboro, 13-3.

Yet the resilient players of Princeton defied all odds these past two weeks, beating Sunnybrae and Chambersburg, 2-1 and 3-1, respectively, to secure a 2-2 overall record, third place in the Pool B and the right to advance to the team's second Final Nine in the last four years.

Although the team dropped both games to their Final Nine opponents Florence and Millstone-Roosevelt, Princeton manager Billy Ray conveyed a sense of accomplishment regarding his team's journey beyond pool play.

"It just feels great to make it to this point," said Ray. "The kids are feeling good — like they can win. The difference is we're not afraid, they're 12-years-old just like we are."

Princeton got off to a rocky start in pool play. After a disciplined Florence squad easily handled Princeton, 11-2, in the opening game of pool play, the squad knew it had dug itself a deep hole.

Things got even bleaker for Princeton as it fell 13-3 to Cranbury-Plainsboro in its next outing.

Heading into its next game at Sunnybrae on July 1, the squad had nothing to lose — the pressure was off and the team was relaxed. And with hardly a sliver of hope left for advancing past pool play, everything seemed to come together for Princeton.

After pitcher Mike Dunlap gave up a homer to the first batter he faced in the contest, it appeared as if the game was on track for the expected outcome — a route by the home team.

Yet Dunlap had other ideas, shutting down the usually powerful Sunnybrae lineup the rest of the game, scattering five hits over six innings to earn the complete game win.

Manager Ray's son, Michael, was the offensive star for the resurgent team, driving in both Princeton runs on singles in the second and fourth innings.

The story of the day was Princeton's airtight defense, which held firm through the last play of the game. In the top of the sixth inning, with the game-tying run on third base and the winning run on first with two outs, Sunnybrae attempted to induce a Princeton error with an aggressive steal attempt. But after throwing the ball to first and back, Princeton catcher Alex Kim gunned down Shane Finley on a close play at third base to end the game in shocking fashion.

"Our defense was just phenomenal that game," Ray maintained "We've been practicing a lot on those types of rundown situations and taking a lot of I-O; we really solidified our roles and everyone seemed to be playing incredible defense out there."

Princeton used the momentum from the shocking victory to pull off yet another upset in its fourth and final pool game, a 3-1 win over Chambersburg on the very next night.

Going into the fifth inning, Princeton trailed 1-0 before Will Greenberg broke the shutout with an RBI double to tie the game. Kim and Rohit Chawla then stroked RBI hits to give Princeton a 3-1 lead heading into the last frame. Chawla then shut down Chambersburg to complete his two-hit complete game gem and all but assure Princeton of a spot in the Final Nine.

"The only way for us not to go at that point was if Cranbury beat Florence 1-0, and so the whole team came out to the game and fortunately it all worked out for us since Florence won," said Ray.

"We felt really good about ourselves watching that game and knowing we were going to advance."

After two upset victories, the team headed into the Final 9 with a healthy dose of confidence. "Our defense is as good as anyone out there so if we get some hitting, we're real dangerous," said Ray. In the opening game of the District 12 Final Nine tournament on Friday night, Princeton's tough defense and resiliency gave Florence all it could handle before finally succumbing to a 5-2 defeat.

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the third inning, when Ray continued his heroics with an RBI double over the centerfielder's head, knocking in Robert Hrabchak and giving Princeton a 1-0 lead.

After starting pitcher Dunlap shut down Florence in the top of the fourth, Princeton threatened to break the game open by loading the bases in the bottom half of the frame with nobody out. But the Princeton offense stalled, as three infield grounders left it with nothing to show for the threat.

With momentum back on its side, Florence scratched across three runs in the top of the fifth. The visiting team added two more in the sixth despite having two base runners picked off behind the strength of four walks and two hits.

Princeton looked like it might have one last comeback in it after loading the bases with two outs and Ray representing the winning run at the plate, but the coach's son grounded out to the pitcher to end the contest.

"[Michael] was really upset after the game but I just told him and the rest of the team to keep their heads up because they played a great game," Ray said.

"The Florence coach told me after the game the he wished he had my defense, and we've just gotten better every game so I'm very proud of this team."

The following afternoon, Millstone-Roosevelt used a five-run third to steamroll past Princeton 11-2 and end its stirring tourney run.

Despite the sour ending, Ray made it clear how much the team's spirit impacted him. "On a personal level, this is the end of the road for me since my son will be out of Little League next year," said Ray. "But I'm having so much fun I might come back next year anyways."

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