08/09/2017 8:35 AM
The adage that "familiarity breeds contempt" doesn't apply to the Borough Cup U-13 championship game between the Dodgers Elite and the Brooklyn Bluestorm.
The neighborhood rivals from Kings County have mutual respect for one another, and that bond only got stronger after the Bluestorm's 6-3 victory over the Dodgers en route to capturing the prestigious National Youth Baseball Championship two weeks ago at the Baseball Heaven complex on Long Island.
"They're a strong team. We've known them for years," said Bluestorm manager Matt DiGrigoli of the Dodgers, who enter Thursday's 3:30 p.m. final at Yankee Stadium as one of the most well-established programs in the Northeast.
The Bluestorm, meanwhile, have cultivated a powerhouse outfit since DiGrigoli founded the organization in 2010. Aside from the aforementioned NYBC title (an event televised by the CBS Sports Network), this U-13 squad has competed in nine major tournaments this season, reaching the championship in each and winning the crown seven times. When the national rankings come out soon after Thursday's showdown, the Bluestorm are expected to be at the top of the U-13 heap.
So, even though this Borough Cup final is at Yankee Stadium, DiGrigoli doesn't expect any jitters.
"Most of these kids have been playing together in very highly competitive tournaments since they were 8," said DiGrigoli. "When they were 9, they won the Nationals in Kentucky; at 10, they won the World Series in Puerto Rico in front of 5,000 fans every night. Once the game starts, it's just a game."
The Bluestorm won the NYBC without their most decorated player, pitcher/shortstop Daniel Colona Jr., a member of the USA National Team. The 6-foot-2, 170-pounder -- whose fastball has been clocked at 87 mph according to his coach -- recently had surgery for a non-baseball related injury and his status for Thursday is uncertain.
Regardless, the Bluestorm still boasts catcher Antonio DiGrigoli (the manager's son) and pitchers Chris Campanella and Aeden Finateri, with the latter two each hitting 80 on the radar gun.
"Pitching and defense, that's the key for us," said the skipper, whose club has a 55-2-1 record. "This is the most enjoyable team I've ever coached, the one with the best chemistry. There's not a selfish kid on the team. They love playing together. They know it's not about one person; it's about the team. It's all about the next kid stepping up. They showed that in winning (the NYBC) without Danny."
Like the Bluestorm and most of the teams in the Borough Cup have experienced, the spring/summer travel season has been grueling for the Dodgers Elite, themselves one of the top teams in the nation last year in the U-12 division.
"It's true about the dog days of August, but playing at Yankee Stadium will be a lift for the kids, an energy boost," said Noel Batista, who along with Carlos Pena assists manager Danny Duverge. "Every kid dreams about going there, and they want to show they can win."
While Batista admits the team will likely be "in awe stepping on the field" at Yankee Stadium, he said the Dodgers won't be nervous about facing the daunting Bluestorm again.
"All the kids on both sides know one another," Batista said. "We know what type of team they are ... they're well-balanced and well-coached."
As for identifying individual players to watch: "We don't single out anyone. The strength of this team is as a whole," said the coach. "If asked to sum up these kids, it's about teamwork, family and commitment. They've put a lot of hours into this, and they all love the game of baseball."
Just like with the Borough Cup's U-13 championship, the U-14 title tilt which will follow at Yankee Stadium on Thursday will be an all-Brooklyn affair with the Williamsburg Sports League All Stars taking on the Bonnie Paws at 6 p.m.
Playing in The House That Jeter Built has Williamsburg manager Mario Delgado more than a bit concerned.
"It's absolutely my biggest fear, the kids getting 'lost' at Yankee Stadium," admitted Delgado, who will also be at the helm of the Brooklyn Bandits in the U-10 final at MCU Park on Tuesday, Aug. 15. "I know we can play with any one; the talent on the team is amazing."
Like many successful squads, Williamsburg "is built around pitching and defense," said the skipper, who plans on giving the starting assignment to Reynaldo Angeles out of his "five quality starters."
"He throws a lot of strikes and knows how to locate his pitches," said Delgado of Angeles. "He has a 'plus' changeup and throws in the 80s."
As for defense: "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. The first couple of innings will dictate how the game will go," predicted Delgado.
The turning point during Williamsburg's season "was when everyone finally understood their role. Once that happened, we took off. It was tough, but it was a great accomplishment."
Bonnie Paws manager Kevin Rice isn't fretting over Thursday's intimidating venue.
"I'm not worried because it's going to happen," said Rice, whose team is coming off winning the NABF World Series in Ohio last month. "I'm sure there will be some butterflies, but once the game starts instinct kicks in."
Still, for Rice's club, the chance to compete at Yankee Stadium "is a shot in the arm. It's definitely something that motivated the kids, and it came at the right time. We've played over 80 games this season and will probably get to 100 before it's all over."
The Paws' winning formula is similar to that of Williamsburg: "Strong pitching, good defense and timely hitting," said Rice. "Our pitching staff leads the way, and everyone will be available on Thursday. We have four main pitchers and each one wants the ball."
Expect to see Brian Jerez and Tommy Palazotto on the mound. The offense should be paced by Justin Austin, Anthony Curiale, Manny Ariza, and Sean Powers. Infielder Sammy Urena keys the defense.
"The Borough Cup is really well run. It's organized and everyone communicates well," praised Rice. "The officiating has been consistent and good. And, even with some rain, all the games got played. It's been flawless to the end. Finishing at Yankee Stadium is just icing on the cake."