Toms River East Little League players never doubted they could reach the Little League World Series. They were not just dreamers or being cocky either.
Toms River knew it could be one of the country’s best Little League teams because it already had beaten some of the nation’s best.
Before arriving in South Williamsport, Toms River spent the past few seasons playing travel baseball as well. And in tournaments against stacked teams featuring groups assembled from the best of the best in their regions, Toms River played it quite well. Toms River did not just hold its own, it constantly won and those victories fostered a belief that it could live a Little Leaguer’s dream.
That dream became reality Friday when Toms River played against Nebraska at Volunteer Stadium.
“They’ve known they could do it for quite some time. We’d play travel ball against academy teams and people that spend $10,000 to play,” Toms River manager and Toms River East Little League president Paul Mika said. “People get upset when we say we’re just a Little League team and not a collection of top players from different towns. They’d ask where were from and we’d just be like, ‘We’re all from the Toms River East Little League.”
What a team and league that has become.
Toms River East was known as “The Beasts of the East,” in 1998 and 99 when it captured the world championship and finished as the U.S. runner-up in consecutive years. Those teams often still are fondly talked about in this area. Now the beasts are back and a bright light again is being shined upon an area which has produced four Series qualifiers since 1998, with Toms River North making it in 2010.
“This is a dream a long time coming and it’s really exciting. It hit us when we came to Williamsport and saw the stadium and boys got new uniforms and batting gloves and bags and helmets,” Mika said. “You name it they got it and that’s when it hit. This is an amazing place.”
Toms River has become an amazing team and the work started when these kids started playing Little League Baseball. Mika and his staff have been working with the current players since they were 5 and learning T-Ball. That team was called the Toms River Reds because 1998 Series alum and current huge league supporter Todd Frazier was playing with the Cincinnati Reds at that time. The name changed a few times over the years, but the results remained the same and Toms River kept winning.
These last five years were building ones and the foundation was laid through hard work and sacrifice. Players who are passionate about the game kept improving each season and opened the all-star season by winning 15 straight games from districts through the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Along the way they avenged a 10U state final loss, beating Hillsdale to capture the New Jersey state championship.
“They all get along. Their brothers. When we give them a day off they get together at someone’s house or the park and play. They’re inseparable and everybody has contributed,” Mika said. “I tell them we haven’t done anything as coaches other than instruct. It’s their talent that got them where they are today. They did it. They got us here. This is their dream and we’re trying to fulfill it for them.”
That dream was nearly dead when Toms River went into the sixth inning of a Series-qualifying game against Delaware trailing 3-0. Toms River had been playing without Tommy Intintola throughout regionals and had been shut down through five innings. Delaware was three outs from advancing but Toms River never flinched.
At the perfect time, everyone came together and Toms River fought back, loading the bases and cutting the deficit to two. One strike from elimination, Carson Frazier delivered the hit of his life and belted a three-run double as Toms River went ahead. It added another run and won, 6-3. The dream was realized in just about the most exciting fashion possible while perfectly capturing what this team is all about.
“My heart is still pumping from that game,” Mika said. “The mindset was simple. I looked the boys in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t want to go home.’ I said, ‘What do you want to do and they said, ‘We’re not going home.’”
Now Toms River is calling South Williamsport home in late August. A proud league again has taken its place on the national stage and this team has raised a lofty bar back home even higher. Toms River competes in a district which includes three other Series qualifiers during the 2000s, so this was a difficult road from the start.
But Toms River has handled that road so well. All 13 players have left their mark on this run and their league’s history. And now the rest of the country is learning what so many other elite teams discovered in the past.
These Toms River kids sure can play mighty well.
“When they get on the field they’re so connected and they jell so well,” Mika said. “I knew they had the talent and the kids had the drive. It’s really a special group of boys.”