The Neptune Little League Junior All-Stars baseball team was down, but far from out.
Neptune trailed visiting Ocean Township 4-2 and 7-5 in the championship game of the District 11 Tournament. Facing elimination with a loss, Neptune rallied for a 9-8 victory.
“We displayed timely hitting and guts,” Neptune manager Bob Smith said. “What do you do with a bunch of 13 and 14-year-old boys? You get them in a huddle and let them know they are not out of it. You tell them, ‘Don’t quit until the final bell rings.’ They responded.”
Neptune went ahead 9-8 in the sixth. Pitcher-shortstop Rocco Richard doubled with one out, went to third base on a fielder’s choice by pitcher-catcher-shortstop John Gannon and scored on a single by catcher-third baseman Connor Moloughney, who connected on 2-2 pitch, giving Neptune its first District 11 title in juniors history.
Richard keyed the offense, banging out three hits, including two doubles, driving in three runs and scoring three runs. Pitcher-catcher-third baseman Robert Smith (whose father manages the team) went 2-for-3, plated one run and scored one run. Gannon, who was 2-for-3, knocked in two runs and scored one run.
“There were four lead changes in the game,” said manager Smith, who is in his eighth season at the helm. “It was a back and forth battle. I tip my hat to Ocean and their players and coaches as they played their butts off.”
Evan Pollack came up big in relief, escaping a seventh-inning jam to earn the victory. With two out and runners at second and third, he fielded a suicide squeeze bunt and cut down the runner at first base.
“He got their guy by half a step,” manager Smith said. “It was very exciting.”
Neptune went 16-0 during the regular season and 4-1 in tournament pool play for a 20-1 overall record.
Neptune has also received contributions from pitchers Thomas Gamba and Arden Underwood, first baseman Alec Baker, second baseman Ryan Gannon, left fielder Jovanny Rijo and center fielder Jeff Tinik.
The team’s captain is Austin Celiberti. He missed a large portion of the season because of hip surgery.
“He was a starter,” manager Smith said. “He played in maybe two games. I feel horrible for the kid. He is a rock. I would love to have 20 kids just like him.”
Manager Smith said his team plays largely mistake free baseball.
“I tell the kids, ‘The team that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins the game,’ ” he said. “That has been true for 21 games. We rely on hustle, sound defense, good pitching and timely hitting. We have clicked on all cylinders. We have all of the attributes you look for in a baseball team. Our kids stepped up and did the job.
“We have a nice balance. We have speed and great defense. We have powerful guys in the lineup who drive in runs. And we have good pitching. A good, positive attitude never hurts either.”
Pollack, young Smith, Richard and Gamba went 1-0 in the tournament. Smith and Richard each won their first four decisions of the season.
“We have a bunch of kids who love to win,” manager Smith said. “They have been playing together for so long that they have developed a chemistry. Some began playing together in T-ball. They have also played recreation and travel ball together. They have familiarity with each other. They are a group of neighborhood kids who get together as often as possible to play on an empty field. They love the game.”
Manager Smith, 49, is a 1985 graduate of Toms River High School East where he played baseball under then-coach Bill Frank (a stickler for sound fundamentals) and basketball.
“I am very hard on our boys,” he said. “It’s the way I was coached. I am a discipline guy. People ask me, ‘Why do you coach the way you coach and I say I coach the way I was coached. That stuck with me. I hope 20 years from now these kids say the same thing when they are coaching their sons.”
Manager Smith’s coaches are Terry Moloughney, Jason Richard and Steve Bailey.