Locals defeat Hoboken to win Section 2 title; head to states in Wallington
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Mike O’Neill thought that his 11-and-12-yearold All-Star team from the Nutley East Little League would fare well in the postseason.
“These kids have been playing together since they were eight years old,” O’Neill explained. “They’re used to playing with each other.”
Last year, the same team, known as the Nutley Raiders, won the Montville travel title, as well as another 12-and-under championship.
“I coached them when they were 10s and 11s,” O’Neill said. “I knew they were pretty good.”
But good enough to reach the New Jersey State Little League championships?
It’s safe to say that the kids from Nutley East dared to dream. Reaching the state level is almost unfathomable, considering only four teams from the entire state will compete for New Jersey’s top honors.
But for the kids from Nutley, the dream has become a reality.
Nutley East not only won the tough District 8 championship two weeks ago, but last Friday night, Nutley East added the Section 2 title, defeating Hoboken 9-5 in the title game at Garfield.
Nutley East went undefeated in the section tournament, defeating Hoboken, 7-5, then defeating Teaneck Southern, 7-0, and finally defeating Hoboken again in the championship round.
It marks the first time since 2009 that Nutley East has reached the state championship level and only the third time since 1982.
“I don’t think it’s fully sunk in what these kids have accomplished,” O’Neill said. “They definitely deserve it. They’ve worked very hard and put a lot of time and effort into it.”
Nutley East was set to begin their quest for a state championship Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m., when they take on Section 1 champs Wayne National at Wallington Little League. The other competitors in the tournament are Section 3 champions Toms River East American, which won the state title in 2005 and won the overall Little League World Series championship in 1998, and Section 4 champions East Greenwich.
Leading the way for the Nutley East All-Stars is Josh O’Neill, the manager’s son.
The younger O’Neill, who was a finalist in the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition last fall in Atlanta, has proven to be quite a baseball player as well.
O’Neill pitched a gem against Teaneck Southern, striking out 15 in 6 1/3 innings and allowing just three hits.
“He’s a great control power pitcher,” said the elder O’Neill. “He has five different pitches, a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a regular fastball, a slider and a knuckleball.”
Say what? A 12-year-old kid throwing a knuckler?
“He looked up what (former New York Met Cy Young award winner) R.A. Dickey throws and how he handles it,” the elder O’Neill said. “He also learned the slider from watching (New York Yankees ace closer) Mariano Rivera. If he’s going to learn different pitches, he’s learning from the best. He throws the knuckleball here and there. But he picked it up on his own.”
Going to the Punt, Pass and Kick finals and the state Little League finals in the same year is not a bad deal for O’Neill.
“He’s had a year you can’t believe,” his father said.
Danny Caraballo is another Nutley East hurler.
“He has a side-arm motion, but he has great control,” O’Neill said. “He’s a dominant pitcher. I think he can develop into a five-tool player. He has tremendous athletic ability. He can play any position we need him.”
Peter Lopez is the team’s lone left-handed pitcher.
“He’s very different than the other two,” O’Neill said of Lopez. “He’s very smart and savvy and relies on his control. He hits his spot. He’s also a very calm and collected kid on the mound.”
A.J. Lotito rounds out the pitching rotation.
“He’s not the most overpowering pitcher, but he throws strikes,” O’Neill said.
The catcher is Ryan O’Mara, who has an affectionate nickname.
“We call him ‘Turtle,’ because he doesn’t run fast,” O’Neill said. “But he’s a tremendous kid.”
O’Mara hit a clutch homer in the win over Hoboken.
“He’s as steady as a rock and gives his maximum effort every time,” O’Neill said of O’Mara.
Lotito is the team’s regular first baseman.
“He’s our No. 4 hitter who drives in a lot of runs,” O’Neill said. “He puts the ball in play.”
Louis Conca is the team’s second baseman.
“He’s your prototypical second baseman,” O’Neill said. “He’s steady with the glove and is usually in the right position to make a play.”
The shortstop duties are shared between Josh O’Neill and Lopez, depending upon who’s pitching.
“They’re both key hitters for us,” O’Neill said. “Peter is our leadoff hitter and Josh bats third.”
The third baseman is Aidan Okamoto-Wolf, who has been a true leader in the postseason.
“He’s a very solid defensive player who keeps getting better and better,” O’Neill said. “He’s grown every day as a hitter.”
Okamoto-Wolf has hit .657 this postseason with an astounding five homers, two of which have been game winners.
Left field duties are shared by Jack Christman and Jim Quinn.
Lopez or Caraballo play centerfield. O’Neill depends a lot on Lopez.
“No kid works harder than Peter,” O’Neill said. “In centerfield, he defends with perfection. I’ve never seen a kid get a better jump on the ball. He has an unbelievable first step.”
Jeremy Kraft is the starting right fielder. He bats fifth in the order. Blayke Alvarez, a second baseman/outfielder, is another key reserve, as is Natalia Bascunan.
Yes, the Nutley East All- Stars have a girl on the team, perhaps the lone team in the state finals to have a girl on its roster.
“She’s a joy to have on the team,” O’Neill said. “She does everything you ask.”
O’Neill receives assistance from Chris Bascunan and Mike Ifverson.
Needless to say, the kids from Nutley are excited to be in the state tourney.
“They really have worked hard to get here,” O’Neill said. “They’ll definitely be ready.”