When play began for just the second Little League State Tournament for players ages 7-8, Nutley American Little League head coach Travis Gonick really didn’t know what to expect. Afterall, for many of the Nutley American players, this spring marked the first time they had ever played in a league where the kids do the pitching, rather than having coaches do it.
In just a few short weeks, the team went from having few expectations to visions of a state championship.
Thanks to six consecutive wins, Nutley American finds themselves just one victory away from a North Region Championship and just two away from a state title.
Nutley American has gone 6-0, the most recent victory, a 5-4 win over Oradell this past Thursday. Nutley American will play Oradell again on Tuesday night in Little Ferry with a chance to clinch the North title. If Oradell wins, the teams will meet again in a winner-take-all showdown on Thursday.
The North winner will face the South Regional champion in a one game state championship on Sunday in Trenton.
Nutley American reached the regional after going 4-0 in District 8, culminating with a 9-5 victory over Bloomfield in the title game.
“For us coming out there and going out there not knowing what was going to happen, to win districts and then play for a (North) title is shocking,” said Gonick of Nutley American’s first season having a 7-8 All-Star team. “They’re putting it all out there and they’re having fun doing it and that’s what they should be doing. We didn’t think it would be a baseball summer, but it turned into one.”
With kids pitching for the first time, merely throwing strikes is a huge advantage and Nutley has the benefit of having three pitchers it can count on, starting with one of Gonick’s twin sons, Tyler.
“He’s not walking kids, he’s getting the job done, striking people out,” Travis Gonick said. “At this age, you’re only allowed to throw 50 pitches and for most kids, 50 pitches will maybe get them through an inning-and-a-half (out of a five inning game). Against Oradell, he pitched three complete innings with seven strikeouts.”
Following Tyler Gonick on the mound are Owen Farley and Alex Medaska, who serves as the team’s closer.
All three of them also rotate at shortstop and second base, depending on who is pitching.
Joining them on the infield is Vincent Ritacco at third base, who has defended the position at such a high level, that Travis Gonick is amazed at some of the putouts he’s recorded from the hot corner.
“He has many putouts at third base,” Travis Gonick said. “For a little kid, an 8-year-old, throwing the ball from third to first isn’t that easy, but he’s making these plays and doing a great job out there.”
Another standout defender has been first baseman Henry Jernick.
“Henry has made a couple of amazing plays, pop outs to end games,” said Gonick. “He’s playing great at first base, knowing the field and knowing where to throw the ball.”
At catcher is Travis Gonick’s other twin son Taylor. Taylor has been a fine receiver behind the plate and has unsurprisingly shown an advanced chemistry with Tyler when he’s been pitching that Travis can only sum up as “a twin thing.”
The outfield has been a rotation for Nutley American with Joseph Gilberti, Luke Richards, James Poth, Jase Giordano, Nolan Lazu and Elias Diaz all seeing time out there.
Coaching with Travis Gonick are Steve Gilberti and Rob Madeska.
Regardless of how much further this run goes for Nutley American, it is one where not only all expectations have been exceeded, but one that has proven to be memorable for all.
“The smiles on their faces, just their attitude, just the way they play is amazing,” said Gonick. “They’re coming together not just as baseball players, but as a town.
“They’re having so much fun and it’s really a blast seeing how much fun they’re having and the improvements they’ve made. It’s great as a father and as a coach.”
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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.)