"We thought we would do good, but nothing like this. We had eight kids back from last year, and that experience really made the difference."
NORMAN STUMPF Athletics assistant coach John Scardina had but one request for his Brooklyn Park Athletics at the outset of the baseball season. He simply asked his 7- to 8-year-old Pinto team to win its last game.
"I knew," Scardina explained, "if we could do that, we'd win the World Series."
Three months and 28 wins later, the Brooklyn Park Youth Athletic Association affiliate still is awaiting that "last game," which will arrive during this weekend's Pinto Tournament of Champions in Wheeling, W.Va.
The A's earned a berth in the national tournament by winning seven consecutive games in the Pinto Classic -- a tournament qualifier -- conducted earlier this month by the North Glen Athletic Association.
The team left yesterday for the 5 1/2 -hour trek to Wheeling and will open the double-elimination tourney at 6 p.m. tonight against an unknown opponent.
Scardina and his assistant,Norman Stumpf, are hoping that their squad will resemble the one that has outscored its opponents, 420-185. But neither coach will groan if the team falls short of its lofty goal.
"I don't think anyone thought we would only lose two games all season," said Stumpf, who saw the Athletics finish 36-5 last year before bowing to the Glen Burnie Pirates in the national qualifier. "We thought we would do good, but nothing like this. We had eight kids back from last year, and that experience really made the difference.
"We were the best 7-8 team in this area, and we're hoping to be competitive [in Wheeling]. I'm hoping we can win, but what happens, happens. These kids have already had a [great] year."
The Athletics' solid group of returnees includes an "incredibly sound" infield comprised of Johnny Scardina (first base), Dave Lucke (third base), Dave Mueller (shortstop) and Norman Stumpf (second base).
NB "The key to this season was defense," said Coach Scardina. "If
you hit the ball to Mueller or Stumpf, you were out. Mueller has a rifle arm, and Stumpf played second with a very good glove and a lot of range. They made a lot of tough balls look like routine plays."
The A's infield unit also was the heart of their batting order, with Stumpf, Scardina, Mueller and Lucke posting batting averages of .750 or better.
"Dave [Lucke] didn't leave too many runners on base, and
Johnny and Norman provided the speed on the bases," said Coach Scardina. "Both were a threat any time they got on base."
While scoring runs has not been a problem for the A's, Coach Scardina attributes his team's success to its ability to keep opposing base-runners stranded.
"Something we were able to do this year that other teams weren't was we were able to throw runners out at the plate," said the coach. "The team was real disciplined about hitting the cut-off man and that broke up a lot of big innings for the other teams. They kept a lot of runners at third because opposing coaches were afraid to send runners home."
Minding home for the Athletics this season are a trio of catchers in John Riggin, Brian Cassell and Mike Moreland. Riggin, who also plays right field, is the A's lone returner behind the plate. His clutch hitting and timely stops at catcher helped Brooklyn Park escape disaster during the Pinto Classic.
Joshua Clark and Evan Matos return at left-center field and right-center field, respectively. Each have made great strides with the glove and the bat, and both represent the future for the A's.
"Those two are probably the most improved of our returning players," said Coach Scardina. "They held the outfield down all year."
Newcomers Darnall Jones and Shawn Coleman have made an immediate impact on the Athletics' outfield unit, while Barry Wells, who played right field last season, moved to the mound this year, where he has emerged as the A's "big-play man."
Coach Scardina believes his team's chemistry has played a big part in its success this season, but adds that the one ingredient that is necessary to any successful Little League program is the support and cooperation of the parents.
"The support we got from the parents this season was a big help," said Coach Scardina. "They let us coach the kids and never interferred, whether we were right or wrong.
"They always stood behind us, and that takes a lot of pressure off the kids. We never had kids crying or whining on the sidelines, and that was a big factor to our success."