Continuing Its Run Through Intermediate Playoffs, PLL Wins Sectional Title, Heading to State Final 4
BANNER DAY: Members of the Princeton Little League (PLL) squad display the banner they earned for winning the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament last week. PLL defeated host Middletown 12-6 to clinch the title and advance to the N.J. State tournament which starts this Wednesday in Lacey Township. It marked the second sectional crown for the PLL program. Pictured in the front row, from left, are Danny Harlan, Alex Winters, Nico Vitaro, Remmick Granozio, Jonathan Tao, Rohan Sheth, and Jack Durbin. In the back row, from left, are manager Jon Durbin, A.J. Surace, Ethan Roth, Lucas Pelc, Wes Yonish, Gordon Grandbouche, and coaches Damon Grandbouche, and Jeremy Vitaro.
By Bill Alden
After winning two nail-biters to start play in the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament, the Princeton Little League (PLL) squad was looking to put the hammer down as it faced host Middletown in its third game.
Needing one win to clinch the crown in the double elimination tournament, Princeton made a statement, pulling away to a 12-6 triumph.
“You could see there was a pattern; we would have these huge innings where we would get a pretty big lead, but we wouldn’t bring the hammer down,” said PLL manager Jon Durbin, reflecting on the win in the clincher which gave the PLL program its second sectional crown.
“In the Middletown game, by the time we got to the sixth and seventh inning, they did not challenge us. I think the boys’ confidence level had reached the point that they finally had learned, against tougher competition, what you have to do is to keep the pressure on the other team the whole game and also keep them at bay. So that was the learning progression for the team.”
Noting that the win marked the second sectional title for the PLL program, Durbin sees work ethic as a key factor in the team’s success.
“The last team to do it was the 2015 team, which was the Teddy Durbin, Jackson Rho group; that was a really good team,” said Durbin.
“They had set their goal. That group really wanted to win a state championship. They ended up just shy of that, finishing third. This team’s big goal from day one has been to win the state championship too. You could see that they are really working hard to get there.”
The title has a special personal meaning for Durbin. “It is exciting, from my perspective, for us to be back again, especially in what is the Durbin family’s last tour of duty as coaches and players for PLL,” said Durbin.
“But also just because these boys really want it. They are one of two groups who have shown that this was their goal and they were determined to go out and get it. They still have another big mountain to climb in winning states, but they are there to have a chance.”
Durbin noted that the team’s playoff run has been the product of a group effort across the board.
“Quite often when you have these deeper runs, it is two or three players making the hugest impact, but with this team, there have been so many hero moments along the way, but the hero moments have been distributed across a number of players,” said Durbin, noting that Jonathan Tao went 8-for-11 with 3 RBI’s at the plate with 7 2/3 innings pitched with 10 strikeouts at the sectional while Gordon Grandbouche went 4-for-9 with 7 RBIs, A.J. Surace went 5-for-13 with 3 RBIs, Danny Harlan went 5-for-11 with 3 RBIs, and Rohan Sheth had 7 1/3 innings pitched with eight strikeouts.
“I feel like when that starts happening, you know you are getting the buy-in from the whole team. Everybody wants to want to win.”
PLL executed in all phases of the game in the sectionals, boasting a gaudy .337 batting average and .448 on-base percentage along with some telling pitching and fielding stats.
“We challenged the pitchers to be as efficient as they possibly could so, in sectionals, 66 percent of our pitches were strikes compared to 50 percent for opponents,” added Durbin.
“We had challenged the hitters to try to make the other team’s pitchers have as many deep pitch counts as possible. Our hitters generated 27 walks compared to seven for our opponents. Our opponents threw 114 more pitches than us, which is the equivalent of throwing an extra game. We challenged them in the field to keep the errors to an absolute minimum and in sectionals we had only three team errors the entire tournament. It shows that the defense is playing really well.”
In order to achieve the goal of a state title, PLL will need to maintain its attention to detail.
“The level of competition just gets higher and higher, so it is not only maintaining that focus, but executing the small things; that becomes way more important,” said Durbin, whose team opens the state tourney by facing Franklin Township on July 11 in Lacey Township.
“We have been working really hard on improving our bunting. I have a feeling in the state tournament that some of these games are going to come down to one or two runs and it is going to be something small like dropping down a key bunt to move runners up to to get a run across the plate in a key moment late in a game or just to change the dynamic in a game.”
In Durbin’s view, though, it is the desire to win that may be the ultimate game changer in the state competition.
“We have been talking to the players, saying ‘you can’t let up now, you have got to keep focused, you have got to stay hungry, and you have got to keep executing a high level and want it,’” said Durbin. “Quite often I feel the difference when you get to this level is which team really wants it more.”