For the last quarter century – 26 years to be precise – Lyndhurst has hosted a fantastic baseball tournament strictly for 8-year-old All-Star teams. The double-elimination baseball bonanza features an amazing 16 teams from four different northern New Jersey counties. The tourney is spread out over three full weeks at the Lyndhurst Little League facility on Passaic Ave. adjacent to Breslin Field.
The Lyndhurst Junior League Tournament is a sensational compilation of tomorrow’s Little League superstars, a chance for 8-year-old aspiring baseball stars to shine long before their Little League careers finally take flight. No wonder why this tourney is simply known locally as “The Tournament.”
Tournament director Dave Rehbein does an unbelievable job getting all these teams to the area for three-plus weeks of exciting competition.
Among the local teams that participate in the tournament are Lyndhurst, North Arlington and Kearny, as well as neighboring towns such as Rutherford, Carlstadt, Secaucus and Hasbrouck Heights.
Rehbein has been in charge of the tournament for the last 12 years. That’s how long Kearny Mini-Minor Little League coordinator Dan Watson has entered a team from Kearny in “The Tournament.”
But Kearny has never been able to win “The Tournament.” In fact, over the years, Kearny never managed to reach the “Final Four.”
So last week, when Kearny made it to the last four teams in the tourney, Watson told his team that he was extremely proud of them and whatever happened from that point on really didn’t matter.
“When I heard about this tournament, I knew that it was called ‘The Tournament’ for a reason,” Watson said. “I was so happy that we made it to the Final Four. We never got that far before.”
It’s extremely difficult to assemble a competitive team of 14 kids ages 8 and younger and expect them to perform at a high level in a span of just three weeks.
“They get their experience from regular league play,” said Watson, who coaches the 8-year-olds all during the regular season in the Kearny Little League. “I was able to evaluate their talent from what I was able to see all year. I found the best talent and picked the best kids.”
The Lyndhurst Junior Baseball Tournament requires a roster of 14 kids, so Watson’s first job was to make sure he had the 14 top youngsters. Rehbein makes sure that all 16 teams have a minimum of 14 players on the roster to insure that there would be no such thing as forfeits due to summer commitments, like vacations.
“It’s a smart rule, because there are always kids that are missing in the summer,” Watson said.
Once Watson selected the team, it was his job to get the kids ready to play.
“We had about a week and a half of practice before we started playing games,” Watson said. “It’s a tough thing to get a team to gel that quickly, but these kids did.”
The Kearny squad was able to face North Arlington in a scrimmage game that was played at Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls, the home of the New Jersey Jackals. What a thrill it must have been for those youngsters to get a chance to play on a professional baseball field.
“It gave them a jump start before the tournament,” Watson said. Watson knew that Kearny had a chance to be highly competitive in the tourney, especially because of a deep and talented pitching staff.
“Pitching was the key to our team,” Watson said. “Our pitching was very strong. I think we had the strongest pitching staff in the tournament. We had four strong pitchers, but we had a rotation of three pitchers I used every game.”
The rules of the tourney were simple. A team could use a pitcher for two innings, but there was no pitch count limit like there is in the older leagues.
So Watson’s strategy was simple. He used right-hander Ryan Eakins for the first two innings of every game, then went to Gabriel Castillo for the middle two innings and came back with his son, Kyle Watson, for the final two innings to act as a closer. If things got a little tough, Watson could call upon Caique Santos to fill in for a few frames. All four Kearny pitchers are righties.
“Ryan was our starter and he was always trying to give me a heart attack,” Watson laughed. “I had to talk to him almost every inning. He would listen and go back to the proper mechanics. Gabe was our middle guy and he had a lot of control. He controlled the game. He was calm, cool and collected. And he throws strikes. Kyle was the most consistent of our pitchers. He gave up only one run all season and that came in the final inning of the last game.”
Needless to say, it was the pitching staff that was the key to victory. The younger Watson got the final outs in Kearny’s 4-3 victory over Hoboken last Tuesday night that enabled the “Kardiac Kids of Kearny,” as Watson described them to the Lyndhurst Junior Baseball Tournament championship.
Yes, the kids from Kearny finally won “The Tournament.”
“They did more than what I could have expected,” Watson said. “They won seven games over the span of three weeks. It’s very tough to keep kids that age into it. But they practiced every day that they weren’t playing. The games were tough as well. We won three games in the sixth inning, so we showed a lot of discipline at the plate and on the mound to come from behind to win.”
Liam Raftery, who comes from local basketball royalty like Kearny native and famed basketball announcer Bill Raftery, is the catcher.
“Liam does a great job,” Watson said. “It’s not easy for an 8-yearold to handle being a catcher. You don’t get many catchers that age, but Liam did an excellent job and handled it all well.”
Derek Brand is the team’s first baseman.
“Derek played every inning of every game in the tournament at first base,” Watson said. “He’s an excellent first baseman. He plays like he’s been there forever. He’s also our No. 3 hitter and he’s a solid hitter.”
Joshua Montalvo and the younger Watson shared second base duties. Watson and Castillo were the team’s shortstops, while Eakins and Santos were the mainstays at third base.
“Eakins made a huge play defensively at third in the final game (against Hoboken),” Watson said.
Ethan Eccles was the team’s left fielder, but Santos got some playing time in left as well. Centerfield responsibilities were handled by Shane Byrne and Kevin McKenna, both of whom were instrumental in the big win over Hoboken. Byrne had a two-run single and McKenna, who delivered a clutch RBI triple in a win over Rutherford, had another big hit against Hoboken.
Landon Pinho and Jeremy Thiele were the right fielders. Thiele was the lone 7-year-old player on the roster.
Aidan Burgos chipped in as a catcher, while Dylan Sullivan was a standout in right field.
Watson received assistance from coaches Bob O’Malley, Phil Byrne and Ashley Sipersky. But the kids were the ones who came through, the Kardiac Kids of Kearny.
“It’s a great group of kids,” Watson said. “It’s a great gauge of what our Little League teams will do in the future.”
Watson informed his team that this was going to be his final season coaching youngsters at the 8-year-old level. Watson’s son Kyle is moving on and so is he.
“I told them that this was it and I wanted to go out with a big bang,” Watson said. “The kids really responded. It was a lot of fun watching them come together and win.”
And they were able to bring home “The Tournament” to Kearny.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”