Let the Kids Play
After a Long Day A Pair of Ridley Park Teams Came Up Just Short
by Nick Schaefer
The majority of the Opening Day pre-tournament hype centered around three teams - ERL, Juggernauts, and Meats. This trio is filled with all-stars and a who’s who of Wiffle® Ball. Although one of them, ERL, was the last team standing in this 10-team battle royal, the talk of the opening 2019 Mid Atlantic (“MAW”) tournament focused on the two teams from Ridley Park—the Shortballs and the Longballs.
The Longballs, who made the 2018 MAW playoffs, were a mild surprise, but the Shortballs run to the finals captured everyone’s attention, including its competitors.
“The Shortballs had a great day,” ERL pitcher and the tournament MVP Jordan Robles excitedly stated during his postgame interview on MAW’s Facebook Live broadcast. “They are a sick team and are going to be a force.”
While losing a 1-0 game on a fielding miscue in the finals could be devastating for some teams, the Shortballs have a lot of positives to take away from the tournament.
“I was disappointed we lost the championship,” said Ryan “Teddy” Drecher of the Shortballs. “After the game we were disappointed that we played so good but lost in the championship. On the ride home, though, we realized that we should not hang our heads and we played great all day.”
Wiffle Ball’s version of March Madness was in April and involved a strong field (to put it mildly) of 10 teams on its way to the final four. As chance would have it the Shortballs (a team filled with teenagers earned the #1 seed) and the Longballs (a squad of early 20 somethings grabbing #4 seed) matched up against each other.
But to start with the Battle of Ridley wouldn’t do these teams or this tournament justice. The journey to the final four for both teams was almost as amazing as their semifinals game itself…and it couldn’t have been any different for both teams. On paper, the Longballs would begin the tournament with a win against the Barrel Bruisers and the Shortballs would fall short against the Juggernauts. Two match up’s that could be potentially lobsided. But that is why you play the games.
In a day filled with upsets, the Longballs were the first team to see their course altered as they lost their opening game to the experienced and gritty Bruisers. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead, the Bruisers hit a barrage of home runs to win 8-2. Longballs’ captain Dylan Harshaw mentioned the team was hoping to win this game with Colin Pollag on the mound and then affording themselves some leeway to drop a game in pool play and still make the playoff round.
“This was a tough loss for sure,” said Harshaw. “Losing that first game really threw our whole game plan out of whack and sent us into somewhat of a scramble that we had to regain our balance from.”
The Longballs quickly regained their footing to beat two of MAW’s top historical franchises, the York Yaks (4-2) and the Stompers (0-0 on total bases). They took the long, harder road to the semis but showed a great amount of resolve to overcome an opening loss.
“It makes the rest of the day do or die and puts an enormous amount of pressure on the players,” Harshaw stated. “However, I think our willingness to not hold back and let our ace throw from there on out was the trick to digging ourselves out of that hole. This loss forced us to be resilient early on and battle all day long to get where we finished.”
The start of the tournament was the complete opposite for the Shortballs. They had to face the mighty Juggernauts, who are expected to battle for tournament titles and the overall MAW Championship come September.
Knowing their schedule ahead of time, the Shortballs had to slightly temper their expectations.
“With all the dominant teams in MAW, we really didn’t think we had a chance,” said Drecher.
But a stunning 3-2 victory against the Juggernauts propelled the Shortballs the rest of the tournament as they went on to defeat the Bruisers (6-0) and Lemon Heads (15-3) to earn the tournament’s top playoff seed.
“As soon as we started the day 1-0, we just kept on rolling,” Drecher said. “Beating the Juggernauts was the statement win we needed as a team to prove we are good enough to compete in this tournament. It definitely gave us confidence throughout the day and I think that game gave us a lot of respect from other teams.”
“When we started the day off winning against a very good team our confidence was through the roof,” added Frankie Campanile. “We felt like that was the key to doing well.”
Clash of the Ridleys
The battle of Ridley Park was filled with big moments and huge swings of emotion as well. The Shortballs jumped out to a 1-0 lead. With the game quickly progressing with some dominant pitching by Campanile (Shortballs) and Tommy Loftus (Longballs), the Longballs got a huge home run by Austin Bleacher to tie the game 1-1 in the 5th inning.
“Austin is arguably the clutchest player I’ve ever seen and showed it yet again late in this game,” said Harshaw. “This moment was also a testament to our willingness to battle back all day and keep our heads up.
“I was mad at myself for throwing such a meatball to him,” said Campanile. “But I knew how big the game was and I needed to get my head back in the game. I really had to turn up my performance.”
As the Longballs took control of the game with a slight advantage in total bases, the Shortballs, down to their last out, rallied and got a walk off single to right field by Drecher in the 8th inning to win 2-1 and punch their ticket to the finals.
“I was very nervous going into that at bat knowing how huge it was,” said Drecher. “I didn’t want to let my teammates down especially after Frankie pitched an amazing game. I had a 3-1 count and wanted to end the game so I saw my pitch and put a good swing on it.”
“This was one of the toughest losses I’ve felt in Wiffle Ball,” countered Harshaw.
Adding more intrigue to this drama, the game also featured another sort of comeback. Longballs pitcher Tommy Loftus returned to the mound after being out for a good chunk of the 2018 season with a back injury.
Loftus pitched with a combination of power and deception to dominate his opponents most of the day.
“This year I’ve been feeling amazing,” Loftus said. “My body is well conditioned and I am much more educated and experienced when it comes to how to treat my body. I am excited to finally be back and competing with my guys.”
“Tommy is our team’s ace, plain and simple,” added Harshaw. “It’s huge having him back in the rotation.”
It wasn’t just the game that made this matchup memorable, it was who these teams are and where they are from.
Both teams play in the Ridley Park Wiffle Ball League (RPWL), which features around eight teams and 30 players. The majority of these players grew up together and even went to the same schools.
The players from Ridley Park are known for their high-quality pitching and enthusiasm for the sport.
“The best way to describe how I felt about both our teams making it to the semifinals on opening day is proud,” said Harshaw, who is the RPWL League Commissioner. “I was talking with Joey (VanHoutten, the Captain of the Shortballs) after the tournament about how a lot of other teams need to grab 4 or 5 guys from different states to compete, but for us we brought two teams with all guys from the same high school that can compete with the best.”
Before and between games you can often see the teams hang out together and chat and joke around (as seen with both squads gathering around a phone to watch their beloved 76ers defeat the Nets in an NBA playoff game), but their mindsets change once they get between the lines.
“Best friends off the field and cold-blooded competitors on the field,” Loftus said. “We all play together, hang out and make fun of each other all the time. It’s fun to compete. Our league is amazing. It’s great to play with all the kids we grew up with, competitively.”
The similarities don’t end with location and talent. The likeness of both teams extends to even their names.
The Longballs were formed in 2017 as the Ridley Park Wiffle Ball League travel team. They played in the National Wiffle League Association (NWLA) and MAW Tournaments.
What started out as a semi joke, became the team’s official name.
“I vividly remember sitting in my basement with the guys a week before our first tournament as we were discussing team names and shouted out ‘How about the Longballs?’” Harshaw said. “After a little while it seemed like the perfect fit for a group of young kids starting their journey in competitive wiffs.”
Shortly after the Longballs success, finishing in 6th place in the NWLA tournament in Michigan, the Shortballs team was formed.
“The guys wanted to have a name that paralleled ours so the connection was clear,” said Harshaw. “And by looking at them as our little brothers, so to speak, the Shortballs name seemed to be a good fit.”
Future Is Now
Now their team names will be known outside their neighborhood. Already containing top-notch arms, the Shortballs and Longballs won’t be resting on their laurels and will be looking to improve in order to maintain their success in MAW.
“As long as we can increase our offense, we will have a great year, even with the impending super team dominant tournaments,” said Loftus about the Longballs.
As for the Shortballs, being more aggressive at the plate and not relying so much on their pitching is an important next step.
“Once we get those things figured out, I honestly believe we could be one of the top teams, if not the best, in MAW,” Campanile said.
With the Longballs having had more prior success, future success is expected, but Harshaw also expects the Shortballs to build off their opening tournament results.
“As shown on opening day, it would be naïve to consider them (Shortballs) as our JV roster considering their high level of talent,” said Harshaw. “It would be better to look at them as just a younger version of the Longballs, a group of guys all in the same age group who love to play wiffs.”
The success of the Ridley Park teams, especially the Shortballs, also inspired those outside it.
“All the hard work those kids put in paid off and seeing them go that far with a very tough draw was inspiring to myself and everyone in MAW,” said new Stomper Gino Joseph.
“People underestimate the Ridley Park boys,” Joseph added about both teams. “Those kids have a great mentality, and you can tell they want to win. After opening day and watching these teams it shows that anybody can beat anyone and makes me want to go outside right now and pick up a Wiffle Ball and start throwing.”