Princeton LL Intermediates Make Program History, Edging Ocean to Earn 1st Sectional Championship
Having gone undefeated in tournament play this summer, the Princeton Little League (PLL) 50/70 Intermediate squad found itself trailing Ocean Township 4-2 in the fifth inning of the final round of the Section 3 tourney last Thursday.
But PLL star infielder Ben Petrone wasn’t overly concerned about the deficit.
“I was a little nervous but I knew we could pull it out in the end,” said Petrone, who has sparked the team from the leadoff spot as it went 3-0 on the way to the District 12 title and 2-0 in the sectional as it earned a spot in the final round.
That optimism proved justified as PLL broke through with three runs in the top of the fifth with Petrone getting a single to lead off the frame and scoring before Ben Kioko crushed a two-run homer over the center field fence to put Princeton up 5-4.
“I was just super excited because I knew Kioko was going to do something big,” said Petrone. “I knew when he hit it.”
In the seventh inning with PLL clinging to that 5-4 lead and one out, Petrone calmly handled two hard grounders flawlessly and threw out the batters to seal the deal.
“You have got to have solid defense to pull it through and win, especially against these better teams,” said Petrone, a rising 8th grader at John Witherspoon Middle School.
As Petrone and his teammates mobbed each other and jumped for joy after the final out, it was clear that the win meant a lot.
“I think it is the first time that Princeton has ever won the sectionals and it is pretty cool,” said Petrone. “We are going to the state tournament so it is a big deal.”
In Petrone’s view, a big part of the team’s success is the bond that the players have developed over the years.
“We have all played together since we were real young so we know each other really, really well,” said Petrone. “We are just a strong team all the way around.”
PLL manager Jon Durbin concurs, seeing team unity as a major factor underlying the squad’s success.
“With this group it is actually the fact that they love playing baseball together, there is no tension or animosity or jealousy between any of them,” said Durbin.
“They have been playing together since they have been seven or eight years old, they really like being on the field together and they like hanging out together, both here and off the field. I think it is that chemistry that is really special.”
The players and their families have also displayed a special commitment to the game. “They have also all been hugely dedicated, the families have been hugely dedicated,” said Durbin.
“They are the ones that when we said it is really important for you guys to start going out for pro coaching lessons, these were the age groups that really started making the major commitment to that. Not only did they do all their little league stuff and their Princeton travel baseball and their other travel baseball stuff, they were going to hitting and pitching lessons from the late fall to the early spring. These were the groups that really started that and you can just see, they are really sound fundamentally.”
Having put in all that time and effort, there were some nerves as PLL found itself on the verge of the program’s first-ever sectional title last Thursday.
“I don’t think there was any doubt for me that we were the ones feeling most of the pressure because we were trying to make history as a team and a program by winning sectionals for the first time ever for the PLL,” said Durbin.
“They were tight, it was on our field. Before the start of the game you could hear a pin drop in this place even with the music going on our side. The parents were really quiet. Our dugout was quiet; we were quiet on the field.”
Things certainly weren’t quiet around the team and its supporters after Kioko delivered his decisive blast in the fifth inning.
“Ben had a fabulous game and he definitely plays a huge role on the team,” said Durbin.
“Here is the funny thing on that play; we were down 4-3 and we had a runner on first, Jackson Rho, who is one of the two guys that I would just have steal, no matter who is pitching and who is catching. I wanted to give Ben one pitch because he likes to swing at the first pitch and I thought I am going to hold off on giving the steal sign for one pitch. The guy grooved it and Ben crushed it. It was gone as soon as it left the bat, you could tell.”
Durbin credited Ben Petrone with playing a key role on the team as an offensive catalyst and defensive standout.
“He is a fierce warrior type of a ballplayer,” said Durbin. “I love having him bat leadoff because he is so aggressive at the plate and he rarely strikes out. He has such great hand-eye coordination. When he gets on, he is so quick and fast. In the field, he has just been spectacular. He didn’t even bobble those grounders in the seventh, he scooped them up and made strong throws. He has been a spark, both in key moments hitting and his defense has just been spectacular.”
Durbin’s son, lefty starting pitcher, Teddy Durbin, displayed fortitude in some key situations, hanging in through six innings before giving way to Kioko in the seventh.
“One thing about him is even when he knows he doesn’t have his best stuff, he makes adjustments and battles like a warrior,” said Durbin.
“If you had asked me at the start of the game, when do you think he is going to come out, I would have guessed around the 50-pitch mark but he just kept getting stronger and stronger the longer he stayed in the game. He regrouped and was able to settle down and even though he gave up two 2-run homers, he never really let them get him down. When he was younger, he would have dropped his chin, he would have had bad body language and he would have started walking batters.”
In reflecting on the title, Durbin said it showed that the PLL program has gotten much stronger collectively.
“I think overall I am just really happy for the program because it has come such a long way,” said Durbin.
“Our main measuring stick is not what we do in the summer but it is important for helping build the league spirit and community and it gets the all star caliber players really excited and committed to the program when they can do things like this. That is what it means first and foremost.”
Now PLL is looking to do something special in the state tournament as it faces West Deptford in the first round on July 15 in the four-team competition being held at Winslow Township.
“Going into states, the most important thing is a four-team tournament,” explained Durbin of the tourney, which also includes Randolph and Nutley.
“Everybody plays on Wednesday and everybody plays on Thursday. Whoever comes out of those two days at 2-0, advances to the finals and they have a commanding advantage over everybody else. My first thought is that we need to make sure that our game plan gets us to 2-0 through Thursday. The strategy part is in my mind first and foremost, seeing how we are going to use the pitching.”
Petrone, for his part, believes that Princeton could end up first in the state.
“We are trying to win it all the way through,” said Petrone. “Our team is looking really good.”