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Federal's World Series run was six years in the making

August 15, 2008|By DAN KAUFFMAN

When the Federal Little League 11-12 All-Stars boarded a bus in Bristol, Conn., on Tuesday morning for the trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., it was the final step in a journey that started six years ago.

In 2003, six of the 12 members of this year's team were part of Federal's 7-8 All-Star team that went 10-3, won a tournament at National Little League and finished second in the Pen Mar Tournament.

That was the start of something great. In the years since, the group of kids have kept winning and have become close friends in the process.

"They're so familiar with each other," Federal manager Bill Abeles Jr. said.

And they do what all close friends do -- torment each other mercilessly.

"One of the funny things that happen at night at 10:30 when lights are out, this knucklehead group of kids starts this, 'Oh, I love you Nick!' 'Oh I love you, too!' nonsense. Even the kids who are outside the loop a little bit have been pulled into it so well."

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There's a saying that success breeds success. It manifests itself in this Federal team, which has won nine tournaments and is 66-10 over the last six years.

"I think individually, they had a level of confidence in themselves and their personal ability to play the game," Abeles said.

The seeds were planted for this year's run to the Little League World Series last year, when Federal won its first-ever Maryland District 1 title and went 2-2 at the state tournament -- losing twice to West Salisbury, which went on to experience the dream of playing in Williamsport. Josh Barron, Mark Grunberg, Andrew Yacyk, Zane Schreiber and Ryan Byard were part of last year's team.

"I do not discount the experience factor," Abeles said. "Especially last year. When they were 9- and 10-year-olds playing in minor league All-Star games, that's a diferent level of baseball. It helps mold the kids, but you don't have the leadership and you don't have the same pressure. The core of five guys that felt the pressure in the state tournament in 2007 are leading them now."

Federal opened this year's All-Star play by ripping through District 1 with apparent ease -- racking up a 51-8 advantage over the four games. Abeles said it wasn't as easy as his team made it look.

"I start with the Valley game. That was a tough one at their place," Abeles said of the 11-2 win in Federal's first district game. "It was a sloppy, rainy night and we had to fight through some stuff with the light dwindling. They had a nice pitching staff, and late in the game we lost Andrew to the pitch count and Ryan Kinter came in and threw curveball after curveball and got us through the end of the game."

Federal faced Conococheague -- one of the few teams with some success against Federal in recent memory, including beating Federal for the District 1 9-10 title in 2006 -- in the winner's bracket final and the championship game.

The results -- 16-5 and 13-0 victories -- served notice that Federal was primed for a long tournament run.

"We were concerned about the first Conococheague game. They're a very tough squad and they beat us at the 9-10 level," Abeles said. "That was in the back of the kids' minds and we worked on building some confidence going into that game, and we beat them twice, That gave us confidence heading into states."

Federal started state play with a victory that was hard to believe -- a 30-0 thumping of South Maryland in which Federal hit seven home runs, three by Schreiber. Then Frederick National gave Federal its first real test, taking a 4-2 lead into the fifth inning before Federal scored three runs for a 5-4 victory.

"That game, we still look back at that as our major test, and I'm not saying we didn't play some good teams, but that was a major test," Abeles said.

"We needed a key double by Zane and a key error in the fifth inning to pull that off. We told the kids prior to the tournament run that there would be some grind-it-out games, and that was our grind-it-out game."

Federal then defeated a talented Easton squad twice -- once in the winners' bracket final, 6-4, and again in the championship game, 9-1. Crosse Barvinchack hit two home runs early in the championship game to spark Federal.

"We were waving through some pitches the first time we saw them, and I knew they would throw the two pitchers that really challenged us the first game," Abeles said. "Getting out to the lead with those two homers by Crosse jump-started us, and it still amazes us that we won that game by the margin we did."

Suddenly, Federal found itself in uncharted waters -- the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Bristol, playing against other state champions. Whatever doubts there may have been, Federal erased them with a 12-0 rout of Delaware in its opening game. Yacyk hit three home runs and pitched a no-hitter with 11 strikeouts.

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