As the dog days of summer wind down, the Princeton Little League (PLL) baseball program has reached a crossroads.
On one hand, the PLL has established itself as a force to be reckoned with among the 18 programs in the District 12, methodically executing a plan to increase the league’s competitiveness and visibility.
“I feel like Phase I of the effort to rebuild and re-imagine the PLL has been completed and it has been very successful,” said league Co-President Jon Durbin.
“We wanted to improve the quality of play on our recreation program and make a jump in the summer all star program. I think we have probably gone from being a team at the top of the third tier in District 12 to now where I can safely say we are in the top third. We have made a big jump. The PLL board feels that after a concerted four-year effort, Phase I of our long-term plan to improve the quality and branding of the league has been successfully achieved. Moreover, our registrations are at an all-time high, as is the enthusiasm for the league around town.”
That jump in quality was reflected earlier this summer as the PLL enjoyed some superb results in tournament play. The 12U Team, coached by Terry Smith, Jeff Vanderkam, and Brad Brock finished second in the South Brunswick Viking Classic Tournament. The 11’s, guided by Bill Venizelos, Kris Ramsay, and Archie Reid, made a strong showing in the District 12 tournament, beating a powerful Nottingham team, while almost beating Robbinsville, the ultimate champion.
The 10’s, led by Durbin, Al Rho, and Chris Trenholm finished 12-4 and made the “Top Six” in the District 12 tourney, finished second in the Monroe Invitational Tournament, and won the championship in the Basking Ridge Summer Blast Tournament. The 9‘s, coached by Mike Petrone and Ryan Lilienthal, finished 10-5 and made the quarterfinals and semis, respectively, in the Early and Late District All-Star Tournaments.
The 8 Black team, guided by Jason Petrone, played well in all three tournaments with a strong showing in the Late Districts Tournament. The 8 Orange team, coached by Jeff Bergman, Gary Zuckerman, and Adam Seiden, did well in both the Amwell and Hopewell Tournaments while the 7U Coach Pitch Team, coached by Ken Harlan, excelled in the Early District All-Star Tournament.
But while proud of that success, Durbin and the PLL are not about to rest on their laurels.
“Now we enter into Phase II of our long-term plan,” said Durbin. “Phase II will focus on successfully playing a more exciting ‘brand’ of baseball in the form of 50/70 and playing championship caliber district ball year in and year out across the age groups.”
In Durbin’s view, the PLL’s recent decision to switch its Majors Division from the standard Little League field size (46-foot pitching distance and 60-foot base paths) to a 50-foot pitching distance and 70-foot base paths as per an International Little League pilot program will be the centerpiece of Phase II.
“Players will be able to lead-off and steal during the pitcher’s delivery compared to our current format where they are not be able to lead off and have to wait until the ball crosses home plate to run,” explained Durbin.
“It means that infielders will be able to make tougher plays, including double plays, due to the larger field. It means that pitchers will be able to throw a wider variety of pitches, including more breaking balls, and that batters will have more time to react to pitches, so the amount of hits should increase each game.”
In order to thrive in the new 50/70 world, the PLL plans to beef up its focus on skill development.
“We will be continuing our relentless effort to improve the quality of our hitting and now to also focus on pitching development,” maintained Durbin.
“Starting this winter, we are planning to launch a pitching program where up to a dozen players will be identified in each age group based on coaching recommendations between the ages of 8-12 and offered the chance to work out with pro coaches and senior PLL coaches once a week to help develop their accuracy and arm strength. Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of pitchers both for the recreation and summer all-star programs, and therefore increase the quality of play.”
A tangible example of the league’s determination to help the players improve was the installation of soft toss and tee batting stations built on to the existing batting cages at Grover Park.
“It made a huge difference with the kids because not only did it create a safe environment but the kids now saw a structured place for them to practice that kind of hitting,” said Durbin, noting that PLL Co-President Kevin Lambert designed the batting stations.
“Not only would they get help from the coaches, we saw the kids taking what they had been taught by their volunteer and pro coaches and actually doing it on their own in these new hitting stations.”
The PLL will be encouraging younger players to take more initiative in improving their game.
“I think we are going to make a commitment to having all star teams at the youngest age possible, meaning starting at the six and seven-year-old level,” said Durbin.
“Right now we have teams at seven and eight but mostly eight-year-olds. I think the other thing is that we are going to start encouraging younger players at that level to start play spring travel baseball.”
The advent of the 50/70 program could lead PLL to help older players hone their skills as well.
“The PLL Board will be voting next month on whether to make 13-year-olds eligible to play in the new 50/70 Majors Division,” said Durbin.
“This would be an important development for those kids who quite often stop playing the game at age 13. Historically, the 13-year-olds were forced to make the jump to the major league size field, and most of them were not physically ready to do so, and so they would drop out of baseball. Now they will have another year to develop and grow on the intermediate size field before making a jump to the bigger 60/90 field, which we hope will enable more kids to play the game longer.”
In Durbin’s view, the PLL is poised to make some history as it embarks on its Phase II.
“These are all thrilling developments for PLL, and they are happening due to the substantial efforts put forward by our Board of Trustees, our all-volunteer coaching staff, and the commitment of our families,” said Durbin.
“We are confident that the quality of play in the league will continue to get stronger and stronger as a result, and we hope that the kids will have a great experience fostering their love for the game for many years to come.”