By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When the 2013 Little League season began, veteran Kearny VFW Post 1302 manager Andy Michaels believed he had the makings of a contender.
“I knew we had a good team, but how far we could go depended on the effort the kids put forth,” Michaels said.
It wasn’t going to be an easy road, considering that Rick’s Auto Body was the threetime defending Kearny Little League champion.
“We taught our kids all year long that they could never take anything for granted,” Michaels said. “We were prepared for anything.”
VFW Post 1302 had to endure its share of adversity when the Kearny Little League playoffs began a few weeks ago.
They first had to face another perennial Kearny Little League power in Arlington Pizza in a one-game playoff, but won that game, 8-1, to advance to the divisional championship round.
VFW Post 1302 then faced Lee’s Florist in a best-of-three series, but won both of the games by 4-0 and 7-2 scores to advance to the championship series, the World Series of Kearny Little League.
There was a daunting task in the title round, as VFW Post 1302 had to take on the recent powerhouse, Rick’s Auto Body, in the best-of-three title series.
There’s an old saying that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s what VFW Post 1302 had in mind heading into the title round.
“We were ready to put everything on the table,” Michaels said.
In the first game, Rick’s Auto Body won, 6-4. The defending champs were just one win away from making it a “four-peat.”
“The kids were really upbeat and didn’t seem nervous,” Michaels said about his team after falling behind, 1-0, in the series. “They always come out prepared to play and they rely on each other very well. One kid might not get it done, but another steps in and does the job. It’s great to watch.”
VFW Post 1302 bounced back and won Game 2 by a final score of 8-3. It set up a winner-take-all Game 3 between the two titans.
The last game was no contest.
Led by catcher Jack Michaels, the manager’s son, who had five hits and scored five times, VFW Post won, 16-6, to capture the Kearny Little League championship, winning its first league crown since 2008. VFW Post 1302 also won the title in 2005.
In the title game, Rodriguez Henriques hit a three-run homer and drove in four runs. Gabe Mustafa, the team’s first baseman, had two hits and three RBI.
“These kids can hit the ball,” Michaels said. “I’m really not surprised at all the way they hit.”
Henriques, Mustafa and Brandon Lau were the team’s pitchers.
“Pitching played a huge part in it,” Michaels said. “We have to watch the pitch count that the league uses (pitchers can only throw 85 pitches), so it’s so important to have pitching depth. It’s also important for the pitchers to throw strikes. It’s absolutely paramount.”
Jack Michaels, the manager’s son, was a fixture behind the plate and he’s only 11 years old, so he gets to return next season.
“He’s taking after his older brother,” Michaels said. Ryan Michaels was a fine catcher and wrestler at Kearny High School, graduating just two weeks ago.
Mustafa and Henriques shared duties at first base. Henriques also played shortstop, so his versatility was a key.
Liam Flanagan was the team’s second baseman, but he played a big role in Game 2 of the championship series.
“He rarely pitched, but he had to come in that game and managed to get out of jams in two innings, striking out four,” Michaels said. “He did a great job.”
Henriques and Lau shared shortstop duties, while 11-yearold Andrew Mauricio was the third baseman.
In left field, the team had Antonio Mastrpole, who is a 10-year-old, and Michael Carey, who is just nine years old.
Matthew Sammarone, another 10-year-old, was in centerfield and right field was shared by a pair of 9-year-olds in Enrique Dajer and Adam Michaels, another of the manager’s sons.
It was a special thrill for Michaels to be able to coach his two sons while winning a championship.
“It means the world to me,” Michaels said. “They all worked so hard toward this one goal. This is something that they’ll never forget for the rest of their lives. To come back this year and defeat the three-time defending champs is a great job. The effort they gave was tremendous. They deserve it.”
Michaels gave credit to his coaches Sui Wah Lau and Donna Wahler.
“They were tremendous in getting these kids prepared,” Michaels said.
The manager also wanted to thank the parents, who allowed their children to go to practices and games at all different times.
“They came out and supported us and that means a lot,” Michaels said.
VFW Post 1302 loses five players to graduation, but the rest return.
“We’re always in the hunt, always around with our kids,” Michaels said. “We’re doing our best. It’s more than just baseball. It’s about life as well and they’re doing their best.”