Players who once battled against each other for local bragging rights in Back Mountain Major League Baseball split into age-group based, All-Star teams when Little League Baseball started its postseason tournament process.
Faced with the chance to show their abilities against players from other leagues around northeastern Pennsylvania, the Back Mountain teams have thrived, continuing their recent history of success.
Back Mountain teams reached this week’s state tournament play in two of the three age groups covered by the Major League and came within one game of making it in the other.
“It’s peer pressure in a way,” said Todd Paczewski, manager of the 9-10-year-old team. “Everybody wants to keep up with everybody else.”
The youngest players within the league spent the spring trying to keep up with the best players in the Back Mountain before taking on opponents their own age.
“The kids are right there every day playing youth soccer with them, playing youth basketball with them,” Paczewski said of the slightly older players who have established levels of success across multiple sports. “We don’t have a lack of confidence.”
11-12 YEAR OLDS
The Back Mountain American team won a district title before falling in the section championship game to North Pocono on the 11-12-year-old level that advances teams toward the famous Little League World Series in Williamsport each year.
Back Mountain American, in the 10-11 age group, and Back Mountain National, in 9-10, won both district and section titles.
“It just goes to show that Little League Baseball is not dying in the Back Mountain,” said league president Steve Skammer. “The other sports are great because we have kids who choose to play soccer and lacrosse and tennis or whatever, but a lot of kids still choose to play Little League Baseball and are quite successful at it.
“We’re kind of proud of it.”
Counting the 11-12-year-old softball team, the Back Mountain Little League produced four district champions and, for the first time, three state tournament teams.
“Unfortunately, this year they are in Mansfield and near Pittsburgh so it’s difficult for regular fans to get there,” Skammer said of the state baseball tournaments.
The 9-10-year-olds started state play in West Middlesex Township, near the Ohio border, Tuesday night.
The 10-11-year-old team was scheduled to get started in the state tournament at the Southern Tioga Little League field in Mansfield Friday night.
The oldest players in the group, the 11-12-year-old team, made it to the state tournament two years ago on the 9-10 level. They came within a game of returning each of the past two years, losing to North Pocono in a winner-take-all game for the Section 5 title each time.
Back Mountain American needed two straight wins over North Pocono and got one before falling, 13-3, in four innings.
“They got us again,” said Jeff Doggett, the manager of the 11-12 team. “They pitched the same kid (Steve McNulty). We still haven’t figured him out.”
Ethan Zawatski’s fifth home run of the sectional tournament gave Back Mountain American a brief lead in the final game.
Derek Answini, Dalton Simpson, Mark Roginski, Darren Kerdesky, John Betzko, Michael Doggett, Michael Collins, Mason Gattuso, Michael Anderson, Beaudyn Lewis, Michael Luksic and Zawatski made up the team roster.
Jeff Doggett said the team quickly formed a winning unit when it got together this season.
“That particular team has played together in all-star tournaments and postseason tournament since they were 8 years old,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together. That really helps because All-Star season is very short in terms of practice and preparation.”
Doggett said the group has developed into a poised team.
“Our guys never get too high or too low,” Doggett said. “If we hit a home run or had a big inning, you’d be pressed to tell if we had hit two homers or given up two.
“Baseball is one of the few sports where if you try too hard, it hurts you. You have to slow down and maintain poise and try not to do too much.”
Doggett praises the leadership of Skammer, a Villanova University Sports Hall of Famer who can be found stopping by an occasional practice to offer insight. Knowledgeable coaches, including Joe Phillips, a former four-year player at Penn State who is the manager of the 10-11-year-old All-Stars, also help, along with a dedicated group of players.
“I think baseball’s important to our community,” Doggett said. “I think a lot of kids in a lot of age groups do more than just come to Little League practice and play Little League games.”
That dedication extends beyond Little League Baseball to other travel teams and offseason training.
“I could name 50 kids at various ages who are swinging the bat year round,” Doggett said. “They’re working at it 10-to-12 months a year.
“Like anything else, if you’re invested in it, you’re going to get better.”
10-11 YEAR OLDS
The Back Mountain American 10-11 team that won the Section 5 title to reach the state event in Mansfield is a good example.
After advancing to the state 9-10-year-old tournament last season, all 12 players and Phillips, the manager, stayed together to create the Back Mountain Bombers travel team.
Phillips said, in an interview earlier this year, that it was the camaraderie of the players and parents from the state trip that led to the players wanting to stick together.
When it came time to select this year’s all-star squad, the 12 players made it again, along with Michael Starbuck.
The returning players are Jake Connolly, Justin Finarelli, Christopher Langan, Jack Lukasavage, Matt Maransky, Will McCrum, Lucas McGeehan, Sam Nocito, Frankie Nockley, Brett Ostroski, Todd Phillips and Dylan Schuster.
Starbuck, McCrum and Phillips combined on a five-hitter July 21 when Back Mountain American defeated host Dunmore, 5-1, in the Section 5 championship game.
Phillips had three hits while Nockley and Nocito added two each.
9-10 YEAR OLDS
The Back Mountain National 9-10-year-old team’s trip to West Middlesex got off to an interesting start. There was a power outage at the tournament banquet Monday night.
Weather problems, including a tornado warning, delayed the start of play Tuesday and forced Back Mountain into a late night game that then went to an extra inning for a 7-5 loss to South Columbia.
Paczewski said depth, both in hitting and pitching, got his team to the state tournament.
“We hit very well,” he said. “We like to hit fast pitching.”
In the Section 5 final, the team produced 14 hits in a 9-3 victory over Mountaintop. It was the second straight game, including a 13-6 win over Mountaintop the night before, that 10 of the 12 players on the roster had at least one hit.
“We’re deep on hitting and we have eight or nine kids who can pitch and throw strikes,” Paczewski said.
The multiple pitching options helped the team get through five games in five days at sectionals.
The 9-10-year-old roster features Ty Osipower, Max Paczewski, Kyle Sincavage, Zach Holthaus, Xander Shaner, Aidan Conrad, Connor Morgan, Michael Ropietski, Ben Fife, Michael Rother, Zach McEntee and Dakota Banks.