Rare loss may be reason NJ is at the World Series

The Holbrook Little League all-stars spent much of the previous four years battering opponents.

The Jackson, New Jersey team has mostly been together since this group was 8 years old and became the first New Jersey team to ever win age 10, 11 and 12 state championships in three straight seasons. Last year, Jackson wove a path of destruction through their tournaments and easily captured another state title.

How ironic then that a loss might be a big reason the Holbrook Little League is playing at the Little League World Series for the first time. That goes double since that loss is how this Series push started.

Jackson routed many opponents this summer, but a district tournament loss to Manchester in its first all-star game might have provided the final boost it needed to make the ultimate title run.

“That had to happen,” Jackson manager Rob Grano said. “It kind of showed that us on any given day we can be beat. We said you’re going to have games like this where you’re not at your best and you’re going to have to find a way to pull it out and we’ve done that since. That got us refocused.”

Defeat does not define a team, but how one reacts can. The way Jackson fought back from that loss speaks volumes. This is a talented team, but also a tough and deep team. Together, they quickly forgot about what was and focused on on what could be.

Now this team has made history, entering the Series on a 21-game winning streak and thundering its way to the Mid-Atlantic championship.

“Sometimes things come too easy and then you come up against a little adversity and you don’t know how to handle it, but they did. They have a lot of resilience,” Holbrook Little League president Tony Del Vecchio said. “They have a little bit of a swagger, but are not cocky or arrogant and that’s good for their age. They know they have to keep working and can’t have any letdowns and that tells a lot of the story about these boys.”

“It showed them that they weren’t invincible. I think it proved it,” board member Jake Byford said. “Manchester gave us a hard time and we gave them a hard time but we came back and came out on top.”

Manchester edged Jackson, 7-6 in that first game and in the blink of an eye the dream these players held for so long was in peril. Playing the competitive District 18 field made the road back even tougher, but Jackson took its first step toward South Williamsport two days later when it beat Brick, 8-2. A 14-2 thumping of 1998 world champion Toms River followed before Jackson exacted revenge and beat Manchester 18-12.

That victory set up a winner-take-all game. Manchester threw one of the best pitchers Jackson has faced all summer, but it did not matter. Jackson made an emphatic statement and offered a preview of things to come as it scored seven first-inning runs and pounded Manchester, 18-5.

The wins and the championships started flowing like water after that.

“These guys were state champs at 10, 11 and 12 and Mid-Atlantic champions at 10, but nothing is ever guaranteed,” Grano said. “Districts were hard and there are so many good teams in New Jersey. You think you’re good but one off day and you’re done. It (their response) has been phenomenal. They really picked it up.”

Jackson has taken nothing for granted since that first loss. It captured section and state championships in impressive fashion before really making some headlines at regionals. Showcasing its entire arsenal, Jackson scored 43 runs, hit 10 home runs and received both stellar pitching and hitting as it made history.

Maybe that would have happened regardless of whether Jackson lost that first game. But there is no way Jackson would do things over in an effort to find out. Who cares what road was taken?

These all-stars are right where they want to be. Their character as much as their talent helps explain why.

“They’ve definitely matured,” Del Vecchio said. “As kids are want to do, when they have failures or setbacks they can easily turn that into an emotion that will hurt them for the rest of the game or tournament, but they have really been able to control that. That shows a lot more of their focus. They don’t seem to get rattled at any point.”

The nervous ones usually are those watching Jackson play. They are the ones who cannot control the game. These players can and whatever has happened, they have stayed in control throughout this summer.

Just do not be surprised if their fans lose control when these resilient champions return home.

“Everybody is telling me how crazy it is there. I get 150 texts a day now and some are from people I haven’t talked to in years saying congratulations and wishing us well,” Grano said. “When the kids get older, they’ll realize what exactly is going on and what it meant. It’s hard to really grasp.”