June 29, 2022

Princeton Little League Team Finishes Journey in Style, Winning the District 12 Intermediate 50/70 Tourney

GOING TO THE MATT: Princeton Little League (PLL) pitcher Matthew Brophy fires a pitch last Friday in the District 12 Intermediate 50/70 tournament. Brophy pitched 5 2/3 scoreless inning for PLL as it defeated Millstone-Roosevelt 13-4 to win the tournament held at the Farmview Fields. PLL will now compete in the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament next week which will also take place at the Farmview Fields. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

“Finish the journey” became the theme for the Princeton Little League (PLL) team as it competed in the District 12 Intermediate 50/70 tournament last week.

Hosting Millstone-Roosevelt at the Farmview Fields in the two-team, best-of-three competition in the division which utilizes a 50-foot pitching distance and 70-foot base paths and is open to players ages 11-13, PLL manager Matt Bellace almost didn’t make it to game one on Thursday, getting stranded in Chicago on Wednesday when his flight home got canceled.

Driving through the night, he made it back to Princeton and described his harrowing travel tale and how he finished his journey to his players in his pregame message.

“I met the team in the beginning for a few minutes before we went out and I told them the story,” said Bellace. “They are looking at me with these wide eyes and I said that showed how much I want to be here and how much I want to win. I said, ‘do you want to win that much, would you drive from Chicago?’ and they were saying, ‘we would, we would.’”

PLL’s  journey got off to a rocky start last Thursday as it fell behind 9-2 against Millstone-Roosevelt by the fourth inning.

“It was just crushing to start that way, it looked kind of hopeless there,” said Bellace.

Undaunted, PLL rallied to pull out a dramatic 10-9 win, scoring the winning run when Asa Collins stole home in the bottom of the last inning.

“We had some big hits from Victor Espitia, Asa Collins, and Brady Lee,” said Bellace, noting that the players were chanting “finish the journey” as the comeback was unfolding.

“The top of our order was a spark, hammering some base hits. We chipped away, we got three in one inning and one in the sixth. Coming up in the bottom of the seventh, we were down by three. It still seemed like a big hill to climb.”

After tying up the game at 9-9, Collins reached third base and Bellace urged him to look for an opening to race home.

“On every pitch, I am encouraging Asa to go a little farther down the line, hoping to draw a throw and that they would throw it away,” recalled Bellace. “I said to Asa, ‘go a little more, go a little more.’ He waits for the catcher to throw it to the pitcher and he takes off. He is in completely safe and there wasn’t even a question.”

A night later, PLL left no question about the outcome, jumping out to an 8-0 lead on the way to a 13-4 win and the title.

“The other team can’t think that a lead is safe after blowing a seven run lead,” said Bellace, reflecting on the team’s mindset heading into Friday.

“We had Matthew Brophy on the hill who I have coached so much. He is such a calm, consistent pitcher who gets ground-outs and pop-ups. He puts the offense on their heels a little bit because they can’t figure them out. He pitched 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball. We were up 8-0 with Matthew on the hill and we kept adding to it.”

Finishing with the championship was special for Bellace and his players.

“It is exciting,” said Bellace. “Last year, I wasn’t with the team. They had a really good squad with some seventh graders. They played a really good West End team and took it to three games and lost. You could feel the heartbreak over that. We wanted to take this one and run the banner around like we did. I am just so proud of these guys.”

The chance to earn a banner gave the PLL players some extra inspiration.

“I took photos at Grover Field of banners with all of the names of the winners,” said Bellace. “I talked to Jon Durbin (PLL official and former manager of the Intermediate squad) and he suggested having them close their eyes and envision their names on that banner up at Grover. That is what I did before game two, calling out their names one by one and saying you can see those names up there years from now. I think that helped, they certainly wanted it.”

Bellace is hoping that the team’s journey will include adding another banner as PLL will now compete in the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament next week, which will also take place at the Farmview Fields.

“It is something I didn’t expect; it is exciting, I have less expectation given that I really wanted to win this one,” said Bellace, whose team will face Toms River East, the District 18 winner, in the first round of the four-team competition.

“We are not a big power-hitting team, we are more small ball. If we can play the near errorless or errorless ball that we did last weekend with lots of chaos on the bases, we are going to be in these games.”