By Jillian Risberg
They’ve been preparing for this for some time and with the trip just weeks away, the Denville Dragons 12U team is heading to Cooperstown for a traveling baseball tournament and they couldn’t be more excited.
Head coach, Patrick Fitzsimmons says that going to the celebrated sport shrine is like a camp out, where they stay in a log cabin all week (July 20 to 25) and get to do baseball.
“I’ve never been inside the cabins but from everybody I’ve talked to it’s exhausting, it’s exciting, it’s sad and it’s a whole mixed bag of emotions ‘cause it’s really the last week where a lot of the kids will be together,” the coach says.
The 13 boys are geared up about getting away and playing in the legendary home of baseball.
“I went with my older son a few years ago as a spectator and the place is incredible.” Fitzsimmons says. “It really is a Disneyland for baseball.”
Denville Dragons all started when the coach joined the Denville Baseball Board shortly before his son got into high school.
Once his youngest was at the age where Fitzsimmons could get a travel team together — he gathered a bunch of the head coaches and tried to determine who they could recruit to play on the team.
Sean Cashman, coach for last year’s (2018) 12U handed down the charter to Fitzsimmons.
Then he will pass it on to the next all-star team that’s going.
“It’s only the Denville kids,” Fitzsimmons says. “So it’s really not a Denville baseball thing; more of a private thing, like a gentleman’s agreement. Next year after we go I’ll hand it down to Kevin Perry, the 11U coach. He’ll hand it down and so on and so on.”
According to the coach, the guy who owned Cooperstown wanted everybody to be able to afford everything — so
concession stands are reasonably priced, everything’s clean, meticulous and very well run.
Matthew Bodnarchuk’s friends who attended last year shared with him about the escapade and said it’s a great time.
“I’m really excited about going to Cooperstown,” says the left-fielder, pitcher, catcher and corner end fielder. “The
best part about it for me is just getting out there and playing baseball with my teammates that I’ve had for five years one last time.”
According to Bodnarchuk, for the boys who made the team — it all started when they were seven and eight years old. Then they had to break in a coach officially.
“Coach Fitz is a great guy; he helps us out with the trials with the team a lot. We hardly knew each other and now we’re like a family,” says the Valleyview middle schooler, whose long-term goal is to play college baseball.
A few other of the boys have older brothers who’ve gone to Cooperstown.
“They’re all talking about the experience — how they took a team trip to the Hall of Fame and what they (the boys) can look forward to,” the coach says. “So the anticipation — my youngest was like seven when he went with us and he’s been waiting for five years to actually have his own team there.”
Fitzsimmons says they were never trying to exclude anybody, rather make it feel like family.
“So they could get that sense of camaraderie, just to have friendship and sportsmanship.”
What makes it special — and he doesn’t think they’ll understand it until after it’s over — that Cooperstown is the saying goodbye weekend.
“If we win this weekend we go to the championship,” Fitzsimmons says. “We play the Montville Travel League and that’s just geared for town travel teams. There’s so many teams now that are club teams and super town teams. This is geared for kids who are all from the same town — a true all-star team.”
Then they have a game scheduled against a club team from Australia touring America playing in different venues, and have a planned stop in Denville for August 9, at Gardner Field.
According to Fitzsimmons, when it comes to their stats — the Dragons are up and down.
“We have a lot of talented kids on our team; our fielding is a little suspect but we’re having a good year,” he says.
When the coach started the team, at that time they didn’t have any travel teams.
“After a couple of years of having it Denville Baseball decided that all the travel teams were gonna fall under them (as the Denville Dragons),” Fitzsimmons says. “But we were kind of like the outliers so we did our own thing.”
He kept all the kids that wanted to play on this team on the team, from 8U ’til now.
“Last year they had a tryout for the team, but then that was it,” the coach says. “Kids have quit and other kids have
joined us but about 10 kids have pretty much been together from 8U ’til now.”
They’ve gone to Ripkin Baseball in Maryland and played in a few tournaments.
“It’s been interesting to watch them grow, get better and develop as baseball players,” Fitzsimmons says.
The age difference, they don’t go by grades; actually have some six and seventh-graders on their team.
“Once this year is over they’re going to be eighth-graders, the field gets bigger and they start preparing for high school, whereas the younger kids are kind of in limbo so they start playing on travel teams. It’s very difficult to get the team together for another year after they’re 12U,” the coach says.
The boys attend Valleyview Middle School, private school (two of them), Morristown–Beard (one of them) and Delbarton (one). They all went to Denville grammar schools.
According to Fitzsimmons, the immediate goal for the majority of the boys is playing baseball in high school.
“And at least five of them are thinking higher expectations like college and the pros I’m guessing,” the coach says. “There’s at least three kids that live baseball.”
Baseball is close to Fitzsimmons heart, and he has also coached basketball, soccer and football, not always as a head coach.
In terms of teams, Fitzsimmons says the Dragons are definitely competitive but try to be fair in everything they do.
“It’s a little different than the club teams where we can’t really compete on that level but it’s more competitive where we can show them what they’re going to get to prepare them for high school.”
The coach says the expectation at Cooperstown is that they do the best they can and win one game because it would be nice to have a good record and he doesn’t want them to come away defeated either.
“If we’re competitive, the kids are all involved, enjoying each other’s company and we don’t have any activity quarrels — and the parents are satisfied, that’s all I really want,” Fitzsimmons says. “I hope it’s an experience that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.”
Brodie Freker has been with the team since little league and getting to go to Cooperstown is the icing on the cake for the catcher, pitcher, outfielder and first baseman.
“I’m really excited ‘cause I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Freker says. “All my friends have gone before and they say it’s really fun so I’m just waiting for that.”
Freker calls his time with the Dragons a great ride.
“We had the good times and the bad times; and we’re doing pretty good this year,” he says. “I’m looking forward to having fun with my teammates and hope we bring it to Cooperstown.”
Next stop: play baseball at Delbarton, try to get a (college) scholarship and ultimately strive to get drafted to Major
League Baseball (MLB).
Chase Napeloni wanted to play baseball and after some time with his local recreational league he decided on a travel team.
“I tried out and thankfully got selected to be on the team,” Napeloni says. “Over the years different kids start to come in until what we have today.”
When it comes to Cooperstown, the second baseman thinks it’s going to be a lot of fun and he’s really happy they are going there.
“Just being able to play baseball with my teammates and friends,” Napeloni says. “Being able to connect with them more.”
After all these years in baseball, he loves how inclusive the sport is.
“You can’t play baseball without one person on the team,” Napeloni says. “It’s a whole team sport where if one guys missing then the whole team crumbles.”
The 12-year-old’s long-term goals?
“Obviously when you play in the 12U you always start to get better, which of course is what I want to be — I want to be better in the sport,” Napeloni says.
The second baseman plans to play high school baseball and even though he knows it’s tough to reach the Majors, Napeloni says it’s worth a try.
At the end of the day, the boys know they are the lucky few who get to embrace the magic of Cooperstown, and wherever their baseball careers take them — they can fondly recall where their big dreams all started.