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Jr. Americans claim NABF regional crown

As he stepped on the field at Kings Park Memorial Park Saturday, Bayside Yankees Junior Americans head coach Joe Kessler had a sense of déjà vu and he didn’t like it one bit.

The Junior Americans were set to take on the Bayside Yankees Junior Nationals in the championship of the National Amateur Baseball Federation Northeast Regional, just as they had in 1994.

“I had vivid memories of nine years ago, when my Junior Nationals upset the Junior Americans in one game,” Kessler said. “I kept thinking right before the game that they have nothing to lose, they’re hungry and most of all they want to make a good impression on me.”

The Junior Nationals, a team that will make up the nucleus of Kessler’s squad next summer, did impress the Bayside native but the Junior Americans scored four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to break a 2-2 tie to win their second consecutive NABF Eastern Regional crown, 7-2.

The Junior Americans (40-5) advance to the NABF World Series in Northville, Mich. for a second consecutive year and third time in Kessler’s four years at the helm.

The 10-team World Series begins Thursday with round-robin play and concludes with the championship game Sunday afternoon.

Needing to beat the Junior Americans twice in the double elimination tournament to capture the crown, the Junior Nationals rallied from an early 2-0 deficit — which saw the Americans score two runs from their first three at-bats — to tie the game at 2 in the top of the fourth inning.

Brendan Daly scored on Jordan Warncke’s sacrifice fly and Bryan Rodriguez drove in Xaverian teammate Michael Dominguez with a triple.

“When it was 2-2 in the fourth inning, that’s when I started getting nervous,” Kessler said. “But I knew if the worst happened we at least had some breathing room.”

But the Junior Americans responded with a four-run bottom of the fourth, highlighted by a three-run double by Peter Sharkey, who then scored on Chris Henry’s sacrifice fly.

The Junior Americans added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning and starter Shane Sveda made sure it held up in a complete-game five-hitter while striking out six.

According to Kessler, the team’s outstanding pitching staff, which includes Sveda, James Niesuchouski, Josh Sitz, Molloy’s David Pelton and Jason Kosakow, who struck out 50 in 32.2 innings before missing two weeks with a strained chest muscle, has been the key to the Junior Americans success this year.

“The pitching staff is 10 deep and I can count on anyone to do the job; it has depth and consistency,” Kessler said of his hurlers, who have a combined 2.50 earned run average.

The Junior Americans opened the regional last Thursday at Eisenhower Park with an 8-2 victory over the West Hempstead Blue Devils as Pelton went the distance, striking out five and allowing five hits.

Later in the day, led by Rafael Lajara (4-for-5 with five RBIs), the Junior Americans defeated the Long Island Mudcats, 18-1, in a game that saw Bayside strand as many runners as runs scored.

The Junior Americans edged out the Junior Nationals, 5-4, Friday at Kings Park High School in a game that saw Kessler’s team take a 5-1 lead before the Junior Nationals, coached by John Heenan, stormed back with three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to get within 5-4.

But James Bellanger relieved Sitz and ended the Junior Nationals’ rally. Chris Harvey went 4-for-4 with two runs scored for the Junior Americans, while Francis Lewis’ Steven Merslich allowed just two earned runs on six hits, while striking out six for the Junior Nationals.

“I saw a lot of pluses in the two games,” Kessler said of his team’s two games against the Junior Nationals. “That team definitely improved from the beginning of the season and the nucleus will be there to have another strong team next year.”

Niesuchouski tossed a complete-game four-hitter, striking out five with two walks, and Steve Schwartz went 3-for-5 with three runs scored and two RBIs for Bayside in a 10-1 win over the Long Island Bulls at Kings Park High Friday afternoon.

Bayside has a storied history in the NABF World Series, winning it eight times under former head coach Ron Seltzer, including a record six titles in a row from 1993 to 1998.

The World Series is broken into two five-team brackets, with the top two teams in each bracket advancing to the semifinals Sunday morning.

The Yankees are red-hot heading into the World Series, winning their last 14 games, but Kessler’s squad will need to get past the Indiana Bulls, last year’s runners-up who are making their fourth straight World Series appearance.

Teams from Miamisburg, Ohio; Delaware; and San Antonio, Texas in its bracket will join the Yankees and Bulls, who won the World Series title in 1999 and 2001.

The other bracket consists of teams from Ontario; Hagerstown, Md.; St. Louis, Mo.; Nashville, Tenn.; and hosts Northville, Mich.

The Junior Americans also qualified for the 20-team Continental World Series in Marietta, Ga. from Aug. 1 through Aug. 10.

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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