Jairo Labrador realized his talented group of Elmora (Elizabeth) Little Leaguers were going to have to take their training up a notch if they were to meet their goal of playing in the Little League World Series.
“We won the Mid-Atlantic championship in 2016 and that is as far as it goes for 10 year-olds,” said Labrador. “After that run we saw what it would take to go further and we knew we had to get better. We had to take it to the next level.”
Labrador noticed an advertisement online for Diamond Nation’s Winter Patriot League and made it a Christmas gift to his sons Jason and Justin, who were 10 and eight at the time. Assistant coach Sal Garcia brought his son, Sal, along too.
“We felt, for us to compete at a high level, we needed to get better,” said Labrador. “Adding off-season training was one of the ways to make that happen.” It wouldn’t be long before Diamond Nation’s Patriot League instructors saw the group from Elizabeth was ready for a higher level of ball.
“Shane (Solimani) pulled me aside and told me our kids needed to come to practice with the Diamond Jacks teams,” said Labrador. “Buck (10U-13U Diamond Jacks Coordinator Mike Buckelew) got involved and soon our kids became Diamond Jacks.”
Labrador, pleased at what he saw unfolding at Diamond Nation, began to spread the word back home. “I told Buck, if you like these kids, we have more,” he said.
Labrador, whose coaching pedigree includes a few years as an assistant on the Elizabeth High School football staff, quickly fell in love with the Diamond Jacks program and began bringing more talented youngsters on the 50-minute trip from Elizabeth, south to the Flemington facility.
Elmora Little League’s players continued to enlist in the Diamond Jacks program until it’s numbers grew to 10 players, all of which are playing on Friday for the 13-man Elmora Youth Little League representing the Mid-Atlantic region in Williamsport, Pa. Elmora begins its quest for Little League immortality at 8 p.m. on Friday when its opposes Salem, Oregon, representing the Northwest region, in its Little League World Series opener.
“Win or lose, they are going to be celebrities for the next couple months,” says Buckelew, who was present for Elmora’s state championship victory in Sayreville. “That atmosphere was insane. My whole 12U team was there and most of the 11U team was there, too. They’ve all latched onto this team. I’ve even seen our older kids, our 16Us, posting stuff on Instagram about Elmora.”
Elmora’s nickname is the Troopers, named out of respect for N.J. State Trooper Thomas Hanratty, a former Elmora Little Leaguer. Hanratty was making a routine traffic stop on April 2, 1992 when he was struck by a passing vehicle and tragically killed at the age of 24. Elmora’s field is named in Hanratty’s honor. His badge number, 4971, remains on the players’ sleeves.
“Because we have so many Diamond Jacks on the team, we’ve been calling ourselves the Trooper Jacks,” said Labrador. But it’s Hanratty’s memory that is of utmost importance to Elmora. “4971 is one of our chants. It’s ingrained in their system,” Labrador told the New York Post.
There’s been plenty of evidence at Diamond Nation since early spring that this group of Elmora Little Leaguers were headed for something special. The Diamond Jacks Super 12U squad, which boasts Elmora’s Sal Garcia, Jayden Capindica, Joel Sanchez, Yadi Mateo and J.R. Rosado on its deep roster, went 51-5 in the spring and summer to earn a No. 27 national ranking by Perfect Game.
“I’m super thankful for the Diamond Jacks program,” said Labrador. “It’s a big part of the reason we are here in Williamsport. We’ve been treated so well and the coaches, including Buck, Shayne, Walt (Cleary), among others, have been unbelievable.”
From Cleary’s end, he’s thankful for the experience of coaching a fine group of youngsters.
“It’s been a pleasure working with this group the last couple years,” said Cleary. “They are a very talented bunch of kids with a lot of personality, which is good for the game. They’re exciting to watch. I can’t wait to watch them make some noise in the World Series.”
The Diamond Jacks Super 11U squad has been bolstered by Elmora’s Justin Labrador and Josiah Sharpe on its way to registering a 36-13 mark through the spring and summer. L.J. Aponte played for the Diamond Jacks Gold 11U team. Two other Troopers taking hacks in Williamsport this weekend, Derek Escobar and Yamil Soto, played with the Diamond Jacks at one point, too.
“It’s been fun watching them go this far,” said Buckelew, who is making the trip to Williamsport for Friday night’s game against Oregon. “I knew if they played the way they are capable they’d give themselves a chance. It’s amazing. They came here just to play winter baseball. The biggest thing I’ve enjoyed seeing is that all of them are such a closely knit group. Reaching the state final showed what kind of kids we have in our program. They’ve been with each other the entire spring and summer and it shows.”
Once Labrador and Garcia had enticed this tightly bonded group of young ball players to elevate their training at Diamond Nation, a logistical problem emerged; how to get eight or nine boys to Flemington in time for twice-a-week practices, batting practice, winter training and games. “Sal bought a Suburban so we could easily drive all the kids to Diamond Nation,” said Labrador.
Formulating a successful team requires plenty of problem solving and Garcia wasted no time putting the travel issue behind his Elmora boys.
“It takes a lot of special things to happen for a team to achieve what we’ve achieved,” said Labrador. “Our parents and whole community bought in. They know we have the best interest of their kids at heart. It’s a dream to get here.”
Labrador has been a school teacher in Elizabeth the past 13 years and currently teaches health and physical education at the elementary school level. “I know this age group very well,” he said. “And I’ve known these particular kids since they were six or seven years-old.”
One of Labrador’s former fellow coaches at Elizabeth, Casey Ransone, has been wrapped up, too, in Elmora’s entertaining run to Williamsport, frequently tweeting out his excitement for the team’s success.
“There is a difference between a successful coach and a great coach,” said Ransone, in his third year as the Hunterdon Central head football coach. “Jairo is what I consider to be a great coach. He relates to all ages and backgrounds. Most importantly, he teaches kids to be good people and how to do the next right thing.”
That tightly knit group of Elmora ball players has also shown an affinity for resilience.
Capindica surrendered a walk-off home run in an 8-7 loss to Washington, D.C. in the second game of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament. Elmora didn’t budge, allowing just a single run over its next three games, all victories, including Capindica’s 5-0 shutout win over Washington, D.C. in the semifinals. Elmora would then roll past New York, 19-4, in the championship game.
“Capindica gave up that walk-off to D.C. then came back and shut them out,” said Buckelew. “In the spotlight, Jayden’s a calm kid. He’s a kid who is unfazed in a high pressure situation. That was a high pressure situation against a team that had beaten him. He also closed out the championship game in the State Tournament.
“I can’t say enough about the great type of kids they are. Yadi, J.R., Justin, Sal, all of them. I believe that’s why they are where they are. They stick together. You can see how well they get along and how well they play the game together. We just want them to play the game the right way and embrace this amazing experience.”