MANCHESTER, N.H. — It took a year long than they’d hope it would take, but the all-stars from Coventry can finally call themselves New England champions.
After falling short of their goal of going to Williamsport, Penn. for last year’s Little League World Series, Coventry’s top baseball players grew a year old and a year wiser and added a little more talent and won another state title.
Coventry’s New England title dream was derailed by Plymouth, Mass. in the winners’ bracket final, but the Babe Ruth 13-year-old all-stars came back with a vengeance Thursday night at Gill Stadium.
Thanks to great relief efforts from Brendon Organ and Colin Sutyla Coventry won the opening title game 17-8 and then the Rhode Island state champion’s offense went to work in the second game. Manny Bjorklund hit a grand slam and had six RBIs, while Jarrad Grossguth and Steve Verrier each scored three runs in a 19-13 victory to clinch the New England crown.
“We didn’t do it last year and we thought we had the team to do it, but we knew definitely could do it this year,” Grossguth said. “It’s a great bunch of kids. It’s feels like a dream come true. We’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to do this two years in a row.”
“This feels awesome,” said catcher Cam Reid, who was one of the important additions to this year’s team. “This probably feels better than they felt last year. It’s a bummer they didn’t make it as far last year, but we knew we were going all the way.”
“This feels great knowing that we lost to them the first time,” center fielder Nick D’Ambra said. ‘We had belief that we could beat them two times in a row. We didn’t play well in the first game. We knew we could swing the bats and play good defense.”
Coventry coach Mark Barter remembers what it felt like on that hot Tuesday afternoon in Bristol, Conn. after his team dropped a 9-8 decision to South Burlington, Vt., which essentially dashed Coventry American’s Williamsport dreams.
Needless to say, Barter felt a whole lot better when his team was handed the New England championship plaque and banner just before 11:00 p.m. Thursday night.
“It’s been almost a year to the day we were eliminated in Bristol,” Coventry coach Mark Barter said. “This is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had coaching in my life. The kids were phenomenal. They never gave up and they never quit. They knew they were going to win this thing.
“Being beaten by Plymouth a couple of days ago might’ve been the best thing that’s happened to us because it knocked us back down to earth. It kicked these guys into high gear.”
The final inning of Thursday’s second contest epitomized why Coventry came out of the losers’ bracket and won the title. After scoring only 21 runs in their first three contests in Manchester, Coventry exploded for 50 runs in the final three games.
Coventry entered the bottom of the sixth inning clinging to a one-run lead after Plymouth, the Eastern Massachusetts champion, scored four runs against relievers Kyle Brown and Joey Barter.
“We needed some runs for comfort,” Barter said. “I told my teammates I can’t go back out there with only a one-run lead and they came through for me.”
Brown, Steve Verrier and Sutyla loaded the bases with one out before D’Ambra walked to score pinch runner Michael DiPrete. Verrier scored on a wild pitch before Grossguth smacked a two-run single to increase the lead to five.
Reid was hit by a pitch to load the bases for the third time in the inning and Bjorklund quickly unloaded them. While there wasn’t an MVP named for Thursday’s games, Bjorklund would’ve earned the award as he hit a grand slam to center field. Bjorklund finished the two games with 11 RBIs and five runs scored.
“When I first hit it I thought it was more on a line and it wasn’t going to go anywhere,” Bjorklund said. “I thought it was going to be a (sacrifice) fly and I was going to be happy with that. Once it got over his head I knew it was going to be extra bases and I just kept getting waved around. That felt great.”
Barter’s words proved prophetic because Plymouth did come back and score three runs in the top of the seventh inning, but when Plymouth’s Ben Zoebisch grounded out to Brown, Coventry finally had its New England title.
“It feels pretty good to get it this year,” Barter said. “We’ve won state titles for three years in a row and now we finally get to go to the World Series. That’s pretty good.”
It wasn’t looking good for Coventry early in the first game when Plymouth tagged Bjorklund for three runs in the first and then the ace had to leave the mound with arm trouble.
The combination of Organ and Sutyla allowed just five runs over the final five innings, while Coventry’s offense exploded for eight runs in the third inning. Bjorklund hit a three-run home run later in the game, while Grossguth scored four runs and had three RBIs.
Plymouth tagged Sutyla for a run in the first inning of the second game, but then the crafty righty held the South Shore side at bay for the next two innings.
Barter, Grossguth and Bjorklund each scored runs in the first inning and Coventry added four more in the fourth opening up an 8-6 lead. Coventry scored three runs in the fifth, but Plymouth score four in the sixth make it a one-run game.
Coventry put the game away with eight in the sixth, punctuated by Bjorklund’s grand slam.
“This feels great,” Bjorklund said. “Going to Williamsport would’ve been great. Still, getting the chance to go to North Dakota and play in the Babe Ruth World Series is a big honor.”