July 13, 2022

Princeton Little League Team Displays Resilience, Taking 3rd in Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 Tournament

SWINGING AWAY: Princeton Little League (PLL) player Brady Lee takes a swing in recent action. Lee helped PLL take third in the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament last week as it posted an 11-3 win over Old Bridge last Wednesday to go 1-2 in the double elimination competition won by Toms River East. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

After the Princeton Little League (PLL) squad suffered a lopsided 22-0 defeat to powerhouse Toms River East last week to open the Section 3 Intermediate 50/70 tournament, its players could have thrown in the towel in the double-elimination competition.

As PLL manager Matt Bellace addressed his players before they faced Old Bridge in a knock-out game last Wednesday in the division which utilizes a 50-foot pitching distance and 70-foot base paths and is open to players ages 11-13, he challenged them to bounce back.

“I was thinking about the moment for those guys and I talked about a book I wrote, Life is Disappointing and Other Inspiring Thoughts,” said Bellace. “The one conclusion I came to after writing that whole book is that sometimes after huge disappointments, the only thing you can do is ask yourself is what is this going to inspire. So here we are against Old Bridge; we have just gotten crushed by Toms River East and the question is what is this going to inspire. Does it inspire you guys to say we can play in another level. We can give it everything we have and not just say, ‘oh well, woe is me, we are not going to win the Section, who cares.’”

PLL produced an inspired performance, defeating Old Bridge 11-3 to stay alive in the competition.

“I really do think that clicked ultimately,” said Bellace, referring to his pregame message. “Old Bridge was more to our level age-wise and the speed of the game. We had no errors on that game and we also hit the ball really, really well. We had 13 hits so it seemed like every inning we were getting guys on base.”

Victor Espita and Noah Prete led the hit parade for Princeton as they each went 3-for-4 in the win with Brady Lee going 2-for-4.

On the mound, Matthew Brophy stymied Old Bridge with some crafty work.

“Matthew pitched a gem, he is so calm under pressure,” said Bellace. “He went six of seven innings. He lulls teams to sleep, he is consistent. They don’t know what to do, they are hitting pop-ups and grounders. They can’t figure him out. He is not trying to overpower anybody. He is throwing location at the right time with a little curveball and a little off speed. Hitters can’t sit back on it.”

A day later, Princeton faced Middletown in another elimination game, hoping to pull a surprise as its foe was likely looking ahead to a possible rematch with Toms River East in the final round.

“That was one where we were looking to play spoiler; this was a classic upset scenario, whoever they have left to pitch, they don’t want to use him against us,” said Bellace. “They put in a guy who was more hittable and the game was close in the bottom of the third. It was 6-3 Middletown. It was very much a game.”

Things got away from PLL after that, however, as it ended up falling 15-4 to get eliminated from the tournament.

“They overwhelmed us; we didn’t play great defense in the second half of the game,” said Bellace. “These guys haven’t spent a lot of time just seeing shots and line drives and balls over their head.”

While powerhouse Toms Rivers East went on to defeat Middletown 15-0 to win the title, Bellace believes that the PLL squad gained a lot from the tourney.

“We are really hoping that this changes the culture of Princeton baseball, meaning that more kids are excited about being part of it, especially at the intermediate level and through the summer,” said Bellace, noting that the team will be playing in some weekend all-star tournaments in the area and will culminate the summer by traveling to Cooperstown, N.Y., the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in mid-August to play in a tournament at Dreams Park.

“Toms River keeps kids in the program and they compete at a really high level. Jim Brophy (assistant coach) and I counted today, we will be up to 60 games that we have been a part of since the fall of last year with travel ball for 12U and travel ball in the spring. We are returning 10 of 14 kids next year, including three pitchers so 2023 could be a great summer for Princeton baseball.”

For Bellace, it has been a great experience coaching the squad.

“I said to these boys before we departed that I have coached in Princeton for years in various sports and we will be more bonded as a group than any other,” said Bellace. “It goes beyond this season. I told them any time you see me you have a friend, you have someone who believes in you. This group is special and I will never forget them.”