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The Year in Review: Berlin Little League teams win state titles

Berlin Little League baseball all-stars in August play in the regional championship game in Bristol, Connecticut.

Coach Cameron McDonough over the summer could frequently be seen dancing on national television during the Berlin Little League All-Stars’ run in the regional championship game in Bristol, Connecticut.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(Dec. 27, 2018) By all accounts, it was another milestone year for Berlin Little League.

Vice President of Baseball Operations Ron Knerr in October praised players, staff and volunteers throughout the league, saying, “It doesn’t happen by chance that in one year the Town of Berlin – tiny little Berlin on the Eastern Shore – has two state champions … that is just a phenomenal fete.”

“It’s probably never going to be repeated. I hope it does – but I can’t see it ever happening again,” Knerr added.

The Berlin Little League girls’ all-star softball team won District 8 locally and then won the State of Maryland tournament, finally playing in Bristol, Connecticut during the Eastern Regional tournament.

It was the first state championship for a Berlin softball team, but the boys’ 11-12-year-old all-stars stole many of the headlines, also winning District 8 and the state championship, and finishing as the runner-up in the Eastern Regional tournament.

It took a perfect game to keep the Berlin baseball All-Stars from a return trip to the Little League World Series, and that’s exactly what the Mid Island Little Leaguers from Staten Island, New York got from their starter during the Mid-Atlantic championship game on Sunday, Aug. 12.

Pitcher Gregory Bruno was dominant for New York, tossing a perfect game in the 4-0 win that was broadcast nationally on ESPN. He allowed no runs on no hits and no walks, and struck out 11 in six innings.

With the win, undefeated New York advanced to the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Berlin was 4-2 overall in the tournament, earning decisive wins over teams from Delaware (6-0), New Jersey (11-1), Pennsylvania (6-0) and Washington, D.C. (18-7). The Berlin All-Stars fell to New Jersey 6-2, but knocked the team out of the tournament during the semifinal game.

Overall, it was the most successful season since 2014, when Berlin made it to final game of the United States Little League World Series in Livermore, California.

During the Mid-Atlantic tournament this year, Alex Navarro led the team in batting average, .529, and hits, nine, while Owen Knerr smacked a team-leading five homers and nine RBIs, and posted an impressive 2.094 OPS.

Lukas Loring hit Berlin’s only triple and tied with Navarro for the team-lead in doubles, with two. Loring was also second in RBIs (five), while Navarro drove in four.

Riley Calloway added five steals, three more than teammates Adam Gardner and Kannon Cropper, who each swiped two.

Other standouts were Case Tilghman, who batted .455 with five hits and three RBIs, and Nate Berzonski, Stephen Wade and Foster Smith, who each drove in three runs during the span of six games.

Wade led the way on the mound, striking out 21 over 9 2/3 innings and only allowing one earned run. He won twice, while Cropper and Smith posted one win each.

Knerr finished second on the team in strikeouts, fanning 10 in 8 1/3 innings.

Coach Cameron McDonough said the team “played their butts off” during the entire Mid-Atlantic Tournament.

“We played our best baseball of the summer this past week, that’s for sure,” he said during a phone interview in August. “Every team we played up there was top notch, and the kids really competed well and really did a great job. I was super, super happy with how we performed.”

Facing Bruno and New York during the championship game was “a challenge, to say the least,” McDonough said.

“You look at something like that you and go, ‘You know what? They just had that dude. They had that guy!’ I think we were prepared for everything short of facing an unbelievable [talent]. He’s probably the best pitcher in this tournament,” he said.

Berlin had been no slouches themselves, winning two of four games because of the Little League slaughter rule.

“ESPN said [Bruno] was the best they’ve seen this year and that’s what it took to take us out,” McDonough said. “I think anything short of that – if they would have thrown anybody else out there [things would have been different].

“It was still a good game. It was a dogfight,” he continued. “I thought we competed really hard. They scored two in the third inning and we were able to hold them off in the fourth, and then they tackled on one more in the fifth and one more in the sixth.”

McDonough said the Berlin bats started to come alive near the end of the game, when Bruno was picked up a few times by a stellar New York defense playing behind him.

“We were starting to put more balls in play, and then Nathan Berzonski comes off the bench and absolutely stroked one into right field – and he hit it too hard,” he said. “It was a one-hop laser to the right fielder, and he comes up and throws a bullet to first base.

“Waylon Hobgood had a ball that he squared up on down toward first base, and the first baseman lays out and makes the play. It’s just one of those things where you tip your hat to the other team and you say, ‘Wow, you guys did a great job.’ And you go home happy that you played well,” McDonough added.

Gathering the team behind the dugout after the game, McDonough said he invoked the 1989 Garth Brooks song “The Dance.”

“There’s a line in that song that says, ‘I could have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance,’” he said. “I asked the boys right there, ‘Would you trade it for anything? Would you trade what you just went through for the past week for anything?’ And not a single one of them said [they would].”

Although they didn’t win the tournament, the Berlin All-Stars did take home the Robert S. Watson Sportsmanship Award.

“That was unbelievably refreshing and I took way more enjoyment in that than I thought I would,” McDonough said. “I thought I was cold-hearted kind of ’win at all costs’ kind of guy, but when they presented that to us before our game on Friday I got a little choked up. I’m really proud of those guys that they got recognized for being the good young men that they are.”

Throughout the tournament, both the team and its coaching staff could be seen having fun on television broadcasts. ESPN took notice and made sure to play Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” during each of the Berlin games, while McDonough could be seen on national TV grinning and dancing unabashedly.

“It was a good time and we had a blast,” he said with a laugh. “One of the things that my coaching staff preached to the kids was about trying to be the same person whether you’re up 10, down 10, or tied. You have to be the same guy, so we had to be the same guys, too, as the coaches. We had to stay in that positive mindset. Even if things weren’t looking good, we had to continue to dance.”

McDonough said all but one of the players, Berzonski, would be eligible to move up a division into Junior League next year, with most going into seventh and eighth grades.

As for his plans?

“That’s a good question too,” he said. “It was kind of strange how this all came about anyway, me coaching this summer, but I do definitely feel like I’ll be coaching in Berlin Little League next year. I just don’t know exactly at what level I’ll be coaching.”

He hopes the success of the All-Stars inspires more people to get involved with Berlin Little League – from players, to coaches and other volunteers.

McDonough credited the overall success of the league – several baseball and softball teams this year and during recent years have competed in and won state championships – to the leadership of people like Knerr, League President Nornie Bunting, and past Vice President Eric Snelsire.

“Guys like that have poured in all their time, and then you have the folks running the concession stand – those things are just as critical as coaching. They really are,” he said.

McDonough also singled out Stan and Katie Griffin for helping to reinvigorate the Berlin Softball league. Katie Griffin is the vice president of softball operations.

“They brought that up from nothing five years ago with all the hard work they put into it,” he said.

“In 2011, when that first group broke through and won a state championship, they stood on the shoulders of the kids that came before them who won district championships and came close to winning states. Just like, I feel like this group gets to stand on the shoulders of those guys that came through from 2011 to 2013, cracking through and getting to regionals, and getting a game on national television,” McDonough said.

“This group was able to stand on their shoulders and take it even further. So, it just builds off itself. It shows the younger kids in the league that these things are possible and they are attainable, and it’s not so much of a stretch to take things further,” he added.

Both the boys’ and girls’ teams were honored during a special ceremony in October.

Bunting agreed the occasion of having state champions in both boys’ baseball and girls’ softball was a rarity – and something to celebrate.

He thanked the townspeople, saying trips to state and regional tournaments would not be possible without their support.

“We represent Berlin. We wear ‘Berlin’ across our chest and that’s what we’re about,” he said during an Oct. 13 ceremony on Artisan’s Green.

Bunting said the softball league in Berlin is only about four or five years old.

Sheri Smith, a team mom, said many of the girls played together on tee-ball teams and were there when the Berlin Little League Softball squads started.

When the regular season concluded, both the baseball and softball leagues form all-star teams that compete with other neighboring towns.

“This year we were lucky enough to pull 22 girls back from the regular-season team, and we had 14 girls that made the all-star team,” Smith said. “All of these girls played together, I think, in year one and have stuck it out and played together.

“Every one of them are near and dear to my heart. Over the years we’ve built that bond with family and friends and the players, and the stars aligned perfectly for these girls this year and they got to experience something that they may never get a chance to do again in their lifetime. We’re real proud of them,” she added.

When the boys played, Bunting said many Berliners watched those games on ESPN.

“And you had the joy of cheering on our team as I did. And it was a privilege once again to see that [Berlin] name across that chest,” he said.

Bunting also mentioned the Robert S. Watson Award won in Bristol.

“This team was so, so special that they received the sportsmanship award,” he said. “Their coaching staff, their players, they were just all winners. They’re winners in our hearts, they were winners on the field … these guys were winners everywhere they went.”

Knerr said the sportsmanship award was special, because only one Little League team each year is given the honor, which is named after one of the cofounders of the Eastern Regional tournament, Robert Watson.

“These boys represented not only what us as coaches wanted them to do on the field, but also off the field,” he said.

All of the players received plaques. Knerr also honored Mayor Gee Williams and the town with a one of the sportsmanship awards.

Williams said there was a different kind of “Berlin Wall” inside Town Hall made for just such an occasion.

“It’s filled with plaques in recognition of the great performances and championships that the Berlin Little League has achieved in the last several years, and this will be right in the middle of that wall,” Williams said. “Sometime when you’re in Town Hall, look for the Berlin Wall that matters.”