By Rich Bevensee
When the NYC Rising Stars 15U baseball team last visited Diamond Nation in Flemington, it wrapped up a whirlwind summer travel campaign last August by winning the Summer Finale title.
Some of the names have changed and the club endured its share of hardships in the past year, but the Rising Stars are now making a habit of celebrating the end of summer in Flemington.
Shortstop Larry Hotaling went 3-for-3 with two RBI while Jude Van Ooyen and Jared Pagan combined for a three-hitter as the fourth-seeded Rising Stars stormed their way to a 10-1, five-inning victory over second-seeded All-Stars Academy Platinum in the 16U Blue Chip Prospects Blue American bracket championship game on Friday afternoon at the Nation.
The Rising Stars called Flemington their summer finish line after playing 40 games in 45 days, a span covering two national tournaments near Atlanta, Georgia, one in Fort Myers, Florida. And, of course, five more games here in New Jersey.
“This team is full of my brothers,” said Rising Stars first baseman Max Doninger, who singled, drove in a run and scored twice in the final and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“We faced a lot of adversity early on in the year – didn’t play our best baseball – but we turned it around really well in the middle of the road trip and since then we’ve been balling,” Doninger said. “It’s been a pleasure to come to the field every day with my boys and just grind.”
The Rising Stars, coached by Adrian Castano and drawing from all five New York City boroughs, finished the week 5-0 and outscored the opposition 36-6.
They reached the championship game when they blanked top-seeded Complete Game Academy, 3-0, in the semifinals, a game in which Doninger pitched two scoreless innings of relief with four strikeouts. Boston College commit Leo Vitarelli, a rising junior at Stony Brook (N.Y.) School, struck out nine through the first five innings.
“It’s been a long road – they’ve been going at it non-stop, which is a huge commitment for these guys – and this tournament is the first time we’ve been able to have parents there,” Castano said. “The boys are gritty, they play hungry, they play with passion and I never want that to change. And after a long 45-day road trip, it could not have ended any other way.
“Summer’s over for us, so we ended on a high note.”
Castano said a major challenge this season was blending the members of last year’s successful team with a host of new faces. Hotaling, who made a sensational play at shortstop in the final inning, said he was never made to feel like an outsider despite joining the team in June. That kind of chemistry is one of the main tentpoles of the program, and something they trumpeted after winning the Summer Finale last August.
“The team had several new faces and we went through a lot more this year in terms of perseverance,” said Connor Tam, a rising senior at the Beacon School in New York City and the Summer Finale MVP last year. “That’s why at the end of the year we were really able to come together.”
Doninger earned the MVP award after chalking up two doubles, one home run, one inside-the-park homer and 11 RBI this week. He pitched four shutout innings against Antonelli Baseball in a 10-0 pool play win, and the two shutout innings against Complete Performance in the semis.
Doninger is reclassifying as a junior this fall. The Sunset Park, Brooklyn native is leaving Leaders High in Brooklyn to attend the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private boarding school in Rabun Gap, Georgia.
Max Doninger of the NYC Rising Stars 16U was named 16U Blue Chip MVP.
“On the mound I feel really comfortable, but I made a lot of improvements this offseason with my hitting. That was my main priority and I feel like it’s showing now,” said Doninger, a 5-10, 165-pound two-way player. “I think the MVP is a product of my work. It shows how hard I grind every day. This is my life and I don’t want to change anything about that.”
The finalists chipped away at each other through two innings. In the top of the first, Doninger stole third and took home on a throwing error, and Hotaling singled in another run for a 2-0 Rising Stars lead.
In the bottom of the second, Brendan McLoughlin’s sacrifice fly scored Ian Oehlschlager for the All-Stars to make it a 2-1 game.
In the bottom of the third, Tam made a brilliant play at third base to prevent the tying run from scoring. With Jordan Juliano at third and one out, Tam made a diving stab of an Alexander Halwick liner, then regained his feet and threw to first to double up Alexander Coombes.
The Rising Stars poured it on in the fourth inning with a 13-batter, eight-run rally, scoring seven of those runs with two outs.
With runners on first and third, Nico Marino laid down a squeeze bunt single to score Hotaling for a 3-1 Rising Stars lead. After Nisael Guzman singled to load the bases with two out, the next three batters picked up RBIs without getting the ball out of the infield, as Elijah Clardy and Doninger were hit by a pitch and Amare Carruthers walked.
Tam blasted a two-run single to left center, and Carruthers scored on an infield throwing error for a 9-1 lead.
Hotaling, who singled twice in the fourth, knocked in a run in his second at bat of the inning for a 10-1 lead.
In the bottom of the fifth, Hotaling and Doninger hooked up for the defensive play of the game. Hotaling scrambled to scoop a Daniel Keefe grounder up the middle and leaped off his back foot to make an off-balance throw to Doninger at first. In stretching for the throw, Doninger did a split which would have made an Olympic gymnast envious to get Keefe by a half-step.
Hotaling is a 6-foot, 175-pound, rising junior at Stony Brook who reclassified after transferring from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
“From the moment I stepped into the hotel before the first game I had with this team, it’s been an automatic welcome,” Hotaling said. “Our road trip started right as summer started, so for a lot of guys who go to boarding school, them being away from school and then being away from home for all but a week or two in the summer, it was challenging.
“But at the end of the day that’s all we love to do. We won a lot of games but to end our summer like this, it’s the perfect ending.”
For the Rising Stars, Van Ooyen allowed one run in three innings on three hits and one walk with two strikeouts. Pagan closed out the All-Stars with two scoreless innings, collecting three strikeouts.
For the All-Stars of Latham, N.Y., Tim Bushart permitted two runs on two hits and one walk with one strikeout through two innings. Oehlschlager allowed eight runs (six earned) on six hits and one walk with two strikeouts over 1⅔ innings. Benjamin Belliss pitched the final 1⅓ innings and yielded one hit and struck out one.