By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It’s one thing to win a District 8 12-year-old All-Star Little League championship.
It’s another thing altogether to win that same district crown, one of the most competitive in New Jersey, for a second straight year.
Considering that you have to totally turn over the roster from one year to the next, it’s almost next to impossible.
But that’s what the Nutley East Little League All-Stars did last week, successfully defending the New Jersey District 8 championship the league captured a year ago.
“I’ve never seen it,” said Nutley East Little League 12-year-old manager “Tiny” Latino, a veteran of coaching Little League for almost 40 years. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. It’s a big accomplishment.”
Tiny Latino is his real name. It sounds like it belongs to a Hispanic midget wrestler. He’s also quite a character.
Latino told his regular season team that if they won the league championship, he would dye his hair blue, to match a player on the team. Sure enough, his team won and Latino, true to his word, turned his hair a shade of royal blue.
“Before the District tournament, one of the kids asked me, ‘What will you do if we won the District?’” Latino said. “I told him that I’d dye my hair pink.”
Sunday night, as Latino took his championship team to a local hamburger joint, he dyed his hair pink.
“It was a very nice night,” Latino said.
Latino said that he’s having a blast coaching these champions, who defeated crosstown rival Nutley American, 9-8, last Friday night for the second straight district crown.
“I’ve been coaching for 38 years and I’ve never had so much fun with one team,” Latino said. “They’re a complete team. There’s not one individual star. They also never get down. When things get tough, they just keep playing. They’re a pleasure to coach. My assistant coaches (Wayne Umbach, Joe Dispoto and Augie Maschi) make it a pleasure as well. The parents are wonderful. We’re all having a great time.”
Nutley East, which advanced all the way to the state tournament last year before falling in the semifinals, rolled through the District 8 tourney, winning all four games, including two against Nutley American.
“I was very impressed with Nutley American,” Latino said. “They really hit the ball hard. Livingston is always a tough team. It was a very deep district. It wasn’t easy to win.”
According to Nutley East Little League president Jerry Schilp, this current champion has been together for quite some time. They won the District 8 title as 10-year-old All- Stars two years ago and were part of a travel team since they were all 8 years old.
“It’s also a little ironic that the entire team all goes to the same school (Yantacaw School),” Schilp said. “They’ve been together for a long time and they’ve played together for a long time. It definitely helps when they’ve played together for so long.”
One of the team’s key players is Schilp’s son Cameron, who is a pitcher and versatile infielder.
In fact, the majority of the team can all play a host of positions. That definitely helps when making position changes during the course of a Little League game, where every player on the 12-man roster has to play at least two innings.
Right-hander Matt Connor has been the mainstay of the pitching staff. Connor was the winning pitcher in three of the four games that Nutley East won in the district tourney.
“He’s just a sneaky pitcher,” Schilp said. “He doesn’t look like he’s throwing super fast and he has a bit of an offspeed pitch that keeps the batters off stride.”
Andrew Chapparo is another member of the Nutley East pitching staff. Chapparo saw action in all four games in relief and won the first game of the tourney against North Newark.
“He’s mainly a fastball pitcher who throws strikes,” Schilp said. “He has a good defense behind him.”
Righty Giacomo Antonicello, who goes by the nickname “Mo,” is another pitcher who started the game that Nutley East won against Livingston.
Cameron Schilp and Connor Genitempo are the team’s other pitchers.
Ryan O’Connor is the team’s catcher. No one dares to run on O’Connor’s arm.
“Nothing gets past him,” Schilp said. “He’s a very good defensive catcher.”
Connor Genitempo and Kevin Hogan share first base duties. Hogan was the big star in the championship game, getting four hits, including two doubles and a home run, with six RBI. Hogan also hit a homer earlier in the tourney.
Cameron Schilp and Matt Cugliari are the second basemen, with Chapparo and Antonicello sharing shortstop, depending on who is on the mound.
Hogan, Antonicello and Schilp are all third basemen.
“Versatility helps,” the elder Schilp said. “We’re able to put kids in different positions.”
Louis Greiss is the left fielder.
“He’s the little lefty dynamo,” Schilp said. “He slashes and gets hits.”
Schilp said that the bottom three members of the batting order had eight hits in the title game.
“Some days, they carry us,” Schilp said.
Chris Kruse is the centerfielder. Kruse hit a two-run homer in the win over North Newark.
Tyler Genitempo, Connor’s twin brother, handles right field duties, along with Aryaman Babber.
The Nutley East All-Stars were slated to face South Hackensack/Little Ferry in the opening round of the Section 2 tournament, hosted by Belleville Little League.
The tourney in Belleville, a double-elimination event, will be played through the weekend. It would be good if the local team could continue to play as long as possible.
“I’ve inherited a very good team,” Latino said. “They’re tremendous. The team was very well prepared. These kids were set up from a very young age.”
There hasn’t been any promise of a hair color change for a Section 2 title – just yet. But there is a hope for a return trip to the state championships that begin next week in Bayville.