Christian Sebastiano could see the tears streaming down the faces of his Nutley American Little League 12-year-old players after their Little League Regional Tournament run concluded with a walk-off loss to Elmora Little League on Sunday night in Rutherford.
But while it was a sad and sudden ending to the season, Sebastiano, the team’s manager, made it clear that there was more baseball success in their future.
“(I reminded them) this is not going to be your last baseball game. I get it that it’s your last Little League game, which is hard,” said Sebastiano, himself a product of the Nutley American Little League program before playing on Nutley High’s first ever Greater Newark Tournament title team in 1993. “People say you don’t cry in baseball, but this is one of those games you’re allowed to cry at. There’s a certain ending to it, something’s finished, but we’re proud of you guys, we love you guys and you guys gave your all. If you didn’t give everything you had and we lost, then you can have some regrets. But you guys didn’t, you fought till the end and you guys have a lot more baseball in front of you.”
While the Regions might not have gone the way they had hoped, Nutley American won the District 8 championship with a 2-1 victory over Bloomfield in the final on July 8. In four district tournament games, Nutley American out-scored its opposition, by an eye-popping 54-3 margin.
Such success requires strong pitching, a deep lineup and mistake-free defense, three things Nutley American had plenty of.
Leading the way was Nutley American’s youngest player, Christopher Haines, who played third base and shortstop as well as pitcher. Only a fifth grader, Haines excelled in all aspects during the team’s run and amazingly will be back next summer for a rare third year on the 12s.
“He’s our best player on the team overall. He hits for power, he’s got a really strong arm, plays a good infield whether it’s at third or short,” Sebastiano said. “He probably had the most hits on the team in the section and on the mound when he pitches, he throws gas. He’s probably the hardest thrower on the team and in the entire section, and he’s got a nice slider.
“His future is very bright.”
Brain Dolaghan was the other top pitcher for Nutley American and also shared third base with Haines.
When either Dolaghan or Haines reached their pitch limit, Sebastiano usually handed the ball to reliever Ryan Puleo, the team’s shortstop.
“He’s a really good shortstop. He’s got a really great glove, makes quick throws and has a strong arm,” said Sebastiano. “He’s also our leadoff hitter. He hit his first over the fence home run in one of our district games, a grand slam, so he was really happy about that.”
Liam Vonroth started at second base, while Matthew Iannitelli and Sal Straface shared first base. Iannitelli, the team’s biggest player, also pitched.
Behind the plate was Sebastiano’s son, also named Christian. The younger Sebastiano threw out multiple runners during the tournament run, and in the championship game at Bloomfield, he led off the fifth inning with a triple before scoring what proved to be the winning run on a passed ball.
In center field was Evan Blanchard, who not only has a strong outfield arm, but possessed game-changing speed.
“He’s the fastest kid I’ve ever seen at this age,” Sebastiano said. “:The other night, he scored from first on a hit to the outfield. He never stopped, he just came around and scored when the outfielder bobbled the ball. He had no business scoring on that play, but he’s just so fast, he did.”
John Machtemes, who had a RBI in the Bloomfield game, started in one corner outfield spot when he didn’t pitch. Billy Rodriguez and Aedan Kupinewicz also saw extensive time in the outfield where their defensive play made what normally is a weakness for teams into a strength for Nutley American.
The team also got significant contributions from Gennaro Davino, who had some key hits in his first year on an all-star team, as well as Devin Telcie, who was capable of producing big-time power whenever he swung the bat.
Joining Sebastiano on the coaching staff were Anthony Haines and Sal Straface, while Mike Blanchard and Anthony Haines Jr. were also instrumental as additional coaches during practices.
So while the memory of their loss to Elmora might be most prominent at the moment, Sebastiano stressed that the happier memories and the valuable lessons that came from their time together will last for far longer.
“You’ll learn all of these lessons through sports and you’ll apply them to your life. That’s the big thing,” Sebastiano said. “And you’ll have all of these memories you made all throughout this run you’ve had.
“Every single kid who plays little league ends his career with a loss except for one team. Thousands and thousands of little league kids end their career with a loss. I know I did, I know the coaches did. None of us won a Little League World Series. It’s tough, but you learn from it and it’s something that will make it stronger.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)