After opening loss, puzzle pieces came together for Jersey Boys

Maybe Anthony Abbonizio explained it best.

When someone asked him why his Holbrook Little League all-star team was so good, Abbonizio gave the perfect answer. The answer revealed how this Jackson, New Jersey team become one of the world’s best.

“Anthony said in an interview we’re like 13 puzzle pieces,” Jackson manager Rob Grano said. “We’re all different sizes and shapes, but when you put it together it works. When you put it together we’re like a fine-oiled machine.”

And that machine powered Jackson to its best season ever. Jackson finished fourth in the U.S after going 2-2 at the Series and being eliminated Wednesday against Fairfield, Connecticut. No Holbrook team ever before had reached the Series, but this group set a new standard.

Jackson finished its summer 23-3 and won 21 straight games at one point. The Mid-Atlantic champions captured, district, section, state and regional championships. They did all of it, too, after losing their first all-star game.

“It’s definitely been an amazing month and a half,” Holbrook Little League president Tony Del Vecchio said. “These kids have excelled since they were 8-years-old, but it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past so they keep pushing forward. It’s a remarkable group of boys. They are 13 great kids to be around.”

Jackson fought its way back through the loser’s bracket at the Series, beating Michigan and California. Jackson scored 27 runs and delivered 30 hits in those games. Jackson showed on a world stage just how powerful it was all summer. It was a team that scored 43 runs in four regional wins and led the U.S field in home runs (7) when it played its last game.

As those two wins showed, it was never the same players doing all the heavy lifting. All 13 carried an equal share and all 13 made a big impact. Jackson gave every play time in the field and at the plate every game and the strategy worked well as Jackson routinely pounded the opposition and reached the country’s Final 4.

While doing so, Jackson captivated its community and eventually its entire state. They raised the bar for an already strong league that won nearly every district championship at each age group in baseball and softball last year.

“It gives you more to strive for. It makes you want to be better and make yourself great and put your name out there,” board member Jake Byford said. “These kids are doing it the best they can. They’ll always look back and say, ‘holy cow, we made it this far.’ That is one thing they have their resume to boost them the rest of their lives because only a few get to play here.”

Jackson dealt with injuries at various points throughout this run and especially at the Series. Staff ace Tai Mann could not pitch in Wednesday’s elimination game after experiencing soreness in warm-ups. Chris Andrews, who shined in relief in the regional final, lasted only one batter after injuring his ribs.

But Jackson persevered all summer. When it captured the state championship last month, Jackson became the first New Jersey team to ever win state titles in consecutive years at different age groups. But this team was never satisfied. It kept going and kept fighting. It might not have won a world championship, but Jackson long ago established itself as a champion.

“It’s been unbelievable. It’s surreal. I still can’t believe I’m here,” Grano said. “If someone one of told me in June that we would be here I would have laughed. They did everything they could.”

That is why Jackson is so eager to see their little heroes return. New York Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier already wore a Holbrook Little League jersey during batting practice. Two-time MVP Mike Trout already tweeted congratulations to the team. But that is just a taste of the reception these players will return when they return home for the first time in nearly a month.

All those fans watched this puzzle come together throughout the summer. The team might not have had a perfect record, but they were perfect for their community. And those fans will never forget what this team achieved.

That is why this party might just be getting started.

“I don’t know if they can grasp the magnitude of what they accomplished,” Grano said. “The town of Jackson is going to celebrate them so much. They are one of the most celebrated New Jersey teams ever.”