Lawrence American Legion baseball team reaches state tournament

Lawrence Post 414 made history in decisive fashion on July 23 at Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton Township.

In the Senior American Legion District 3 runner-up/elimination game, Lawrence beat Washington Township 521, 11-1, to advance to the New Jersey Elite 8 for the first time in program history.

“And that has been around for like 78 years or something,” said Lawrence coach Jason Zegarski of the state tournament, which will start with pool play on July 26 at Kean University in Union.

The runner-up/elimination game started on July 22 at Gilder Park in Bordentown. But with Lawrence up 5-0 in the top of the fourth inning, a thunderstorm began and didn’t end for awhile, postponing the game for one day.

Zegarski and his players, though, didn’t flinch. Kyle Rosica and Jacob Kmiec combined for three shutout innings in relief on July 23, finishing the three inning shutout job by starter Colin D’Angelo from July 22. And Lawrence’s offense kept right on hitting, reaching 16 hits in total and scoring six more runs after the resumption of the contest.

“It was a merry go round,” Zegarski said. “Just a bunch of singles moving guys around.”

After a solid 15-9 regular season, Lawrence earned the fifth and second to last district tournament bid out of the Mercer County American Legion League (MCALL).

But then it lost its District 3 opener, 3-0, to Washington Township 521 on July 20 at Gilder Park. The resilient club bounced back the next day with an 11-5 victory over Brick 348.

That set up another showdown with Washington Township in the elimination game, and Lawrence exacted revenge with maybe its best all around performance of the summer.

“Our bats picked up yesterday,” Zegarski said on July 22, after Lawrence’s victory over Brick. “I just have a good feeling going into tonight.”

The coach turned out to be right.

And now he has an equally good feeling going into the NJ Elite 8, which will include three of Lawrence’s MCALL rivals, District 2 champion Hopewell Post 339, District 3 champion Bordentown Post 26 and District 2 runner-up Hamilton Post 31, all of whom finished ahead of Lawrence in the MCALL regular-season standings.

In a field with league powers like that, Lawrence will be overlooked, which excites Zegarski.

“We’re going in with an underdog mentality,” he said. “We’ll just try to play our best ball and see how the cards fall.”

“When we’re loose and having fun, we’re playing our best baseball,” the coach added. 

Lawrence is definitely “loose and having fun” right now. After the club’s shutout loss in its district opener, Zegarski and his assistant coaches knew they needed to loosen their players up.

So they brought back a fun ritual from the end of their regular season, which they didn’t do in the first playoff game: picking the lineup out of a hat…in the dugout with the players watching.

As the coaches made their blind selections, the players cracked up at the utter randomization of a normally part meritocratic, part political process. After the ritual, the players hustled out to the field with smiles on their faces. They were ready to just have fun playing ball.

Lawrence went on to outscore its next two opponents 22-6. Sometimes coaching is more art than science.

“We decide who’s playing where defensively, and then we put nine in the hat and decide the order,” Zegarski said. “The players love it.” 

In Elite 8 pool play, Lawrence will battle Hamilton on July 26 at 12:30 p.m., Whitehouse Post 284 on July 27 at 3 p.m. and West Deptford Post 100 on July 28 at 3 p.m. Lawrence needs to finish in the top two in its four-team pool to advance to the state semifinals on July 30.