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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Downtown captured two state championships in Little League softball in Chatham, N.Y. with one team still with ambitions of a national title.
A Downtown Little League team comprised of local 14-year-olds will play in the Eastern Region finals Aug. 1 – 8 in Orange, Conn. following a 7-6 victory over Haverstraw on July 27.
The next day, a hard-nosed battle for supremacy in the 11-year-old division concluded in a 7-6 extra-inning win for Downtown — which had never before won a state Little League softball title before this year.
Players and coaches alike said they could not have imagined several years ago that they would be the top-team of the five boroughs. Within a few games the teen team will know whether they have what it takes this year to compete at the national tournament in Kirkland, Wash.
“It’s kind of crazy because everyone doubted us because we were from Downtown,” said the older team’s pitcher, Ava O’Mara, who developed her softball skills with the rest of her teammates the past three seasons.
When Downtown Little League first vied for an opportunity to compete in the state championship in 2011, a hard-hitting team from South Shore State Island demonstrated the Downtown team was not ready by running up the score so fast that officials ended the game in the third inning by invoking the “mercy rule.”
“We were really not used to the competition,” said O’Mara. On Saturday, Haverstraw jumped to an early 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning in the championship game, but Downtown was ready to fight back.
The team, managed by Joe Marino, got offensive momentum of its own in the bottom half of the inning, cutting the lead to one run following an R.B.I.-double by Brooke Kirwin and an R.B.I.-single by Ava Villalba.
Pitcher Morgan O’Mara held Haverstraw to no runs for the next two innings with the help of critical defensive plays. With the score remaining steady at 4-3, her twin sister Ava came in to relieve her.
“It was really important to hit your spot and not throw anything over the plate,” Ava said of her pitching strategy against a Haverstraw team perennially viewed as a contender for the state title.
In the bottom of the fifth, Downtown took a 6-4 lead with back-to-back doubles by Sophia Marino and Emily Samar. Key defensive plays by catcher Emily Samar and shortstop Marino limited Haverstraw’s offensive efforts to just two more runs for the rest of the game.
As the home team, Downtown would come to bat for the last time in the bottom of the sixth. The score was 6-6 and the two teams were locked in fierce to determine which team was the best when it mattered.
“Morgan O’Mara scored what proved to be the winning run on some heady base running in the bottom of the six,” said father Chris O’Mara, a member of the Downtown coaching staff.
Haverstraw still had one more chance to bat. They already knew how to beat Downtown, having done so in the first day of the tournament. However, Downtown had something to prove beyond merely capturing the state crown. A certain opportunity to integrate the lessons learned from years of hard work and playing the role of the underdog gave them a certain faith in getting those final three outs.
With the tying run at second base, a pop-up fly would end the game.
“I think all that hard work paid off and we really stepped it up,” said Morgan. “We couldn’t have done it without every person.”
The younger champs
For the 11-year-olds in their title game Mon., July 28, with the score tied 2-2, a new field had to be prepared in order to continue the game due to the rain. Sisters Isabella and Anabella Pelaez got Downtown started with two walks. A “perfect” bunt by Grace Kirwin advanced the runners to second and third.
That’s when Rylie Spiegel came through with a critical grounder allowing Isabella to score and Downtown to garner a one-run lead.
A ground-out, single and strikeout began Pearl River’s offensive effort in the bottom of the seventh. Perhaps, any championship game should have a little drama to end it.
“As soon as Rylie Spiegel caught the strike for the second out, she popped up and threw the ball to the shortstop Zoe Anderson, as the runner was stealing the base,” read an account of the game sent to Downtown Express. “That ball flew in Zoe’s glove as the runner was sliding into her. You see both girls on the ground and the umpire says: ‘Where’s the ball?’ Zoe throws her glove in the air to show him and he yells ‘She’s out!’ for the third and final out of the New York State Championship game. Their hard work has paid off!”
Downtown Express attended the city championship for the 11-year-old division on July 20 to observe just what it takes to make someone the best in the city, a distinction known to few. When it comes to youth softball, limiting mistakes is key as was the case in the 5-2 victory over Great Kills, Staten Island held at Con Ed Field on E. 16th St.
The section title was far from assured though going into the weekend when an early defeat in the section tournament — which also included teams from Long Island — meant Downtown needed two victories over Great Kills to advance.
A 4-1 victory on Fri., July 18 featured the same “key element,” to success that came into play the next day, according to Downtown coach Scott Morrison.
“Our motto was: ‘the team that makes the less errors, wins,’ ” he said.
Downtown players were not lacking in individual heroics. Pitcher Jamie Morrison struck out six, allowing only three hits in the complete game win. Zoe Anderson, who plays third base, led the team at the plate with two runs batted in while sisters Ava and Emma Whitman each batted in one run.
Great Kills had advantages of their own coming into the game, including a high-octane fan base.
The team is known there for taking Little League with a fervor unique among the five boroughs. They print their familial affiliation on the back of otherwise matching red jerseys. They speak up audibly from the outfield when umpires attract their ire. And several of their players appear at least five and a half feet tall — home run threats when the outfield fence is only 150 feet from home plate.
In the first inning, one of them would blast a line drive like she was Ichiro Suzuki, but Downtown’s right fielder, Aeryn Lubelsky, was right there, ready to catch the ball. Downtown meanwhile exhibited strong bunting and base running as their lead grew to 5-0 in the third inning.
Anxiety has no place in the batter’s box, said center fielder Grace Kirwin, Downtown’s leadoff hitter in the city title game. Certain lessons are ready for application within that brief moment when the fluorescent green softball spins towards home plate.
“I don’t really think about what’s going to happen,” she said. “I just watch the ball [and] do what my coaches tell me.”
As the bottom of the fourth began, Staten Island would launch its strongest offensive effort of the game with two singles followed by a wild pitch. With runners on second and third, a hard-grounder was too much to handle as Staten Island scored two runs to make it 5-2.
Pitcher Jamie Morrison seemed in trouble. She walked a batter and the next one made contact with another grounder. This time though there was no trouble getting the ball over to Anabella Pelaez at first to end the inning.
“We hit rockets and the girls made the plays so they made the defensive plays in the big innings and we didn’t and I think that’s what it amounts to,” said Great Kills coach Jim Durkin.
Downtown got runners on base in the fifth but both teams tightened their defenses for the rest of the game. Morrison meanwhile continued throwing heat and getting runners out with the help of strong infield play.
Jim Nelson, longtime district administrator of Little League in Manhattan and the Bronx, summed up the secret of winning at this level of play by saying: “throw strikes” and “play good in the infield.”
In the bottom of the sixth — the final inning — there were two outs and a runner on third. Then three balls and two strikes accrued. Suspense played out with a foul ball. The moment of truth arrived with another grounder and it all looked so routine as the throw beat the runner to first.
Such a conclusion only made sense for the team, but worried Downtown parents hung onto to each moment from the center field fence until the final out was called.
“I’m excited, but nervous,” Craig Boyce, father of outfielder Maddie Boyce, said prior to the city championship game. “Seeing them work so hard for this [and] practice everyday so they deserve it if they get this.”