GOFFSTOWN — Moms, dads and grandparents unloaded suitcases and gear from their trunks. Pictures were taken, children were hugged and even a few baseballs were autographed.
That was the scene Thursday morning in the parking lot at the Goffstown Junior Baseball fields as the state Little League champs from Goffstown boarded a bus to head to Bristol, Conn.
Pool play begins today at 2 p.m. against Falmouth, Maine. It will be the opening game of the tournament.
It’s been 11 days since Goffstown secured the state title and a berth in the New England Regionals. But for many of these players and their families, it took years to reach this moment.
“Three years of hard work and dedication has paid off,” said Jessica Dutton about her son, T.J., who won state titles along with six teammates as a 10-year-old, again at 11 and this year as a 12-year-old major league player.
For people in Goffstown, baseball is a tradition that involves generations of families. Kerry Steckowych, father of Derek, wished that grandfather John “Papa Don” Croteau could have seen this moment.
“He passed away last July,” said Steckowych. “Every time Derek struck someone out he’d pump his fist and say ‘That’s my boy!’ If he was here, he’d be in his glory.”
At practices, coach Mark Campbell said the team was loose. “It’s a real balance. You want to stay focused and maintain a calm intensity,” said Campbell. “Yet it’s a game and you have to have fun playing.”
“We’re ready,” said Campbell. “The kids have been working really hard and are ready to get going.”
Part of getting ready was scouting the competition. “We saw three games of the Maine state tournament, the finals in Rhode Island and the finals in Massachusetts,” said Campbell. That’s one of the advantages of qualifying early.
“We ask the kids to work hard and do everything they can to be prepared,” said Campbell. “Well, the coaches are the same way. We’re going to gain as much information as we can to be prepared.”
The players wore T-shirts with their nicknames on the back. Myles Green is “Green Bean.” Renaud Pelletier is “Smalls.” T.J Dutton is “Smooth.” Derek Stechwych? “Big D.”
“Over time we made nicknames for each other,” said Ben Harris, whose nickname is “The Jet” after character Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in the movie “The Sandlot.”
Despite the lighthearted mood of the day, Harris said his teammates are on a mission. “We want to have as much as we can but we’re going down there to win,” said Harris. “We have a goal to go to Williamsport.”
At 8:45 a.m., a limo bus from Grace Limousine pulled into the lot, along with a pair of Goffstown police cruisers that escorted the team through town.
Goffstown Junior Baseball president Jim Hujsak, whose son Connor plays on the team, said businesses and individuals in town stepped up with additional support of money and donations.
Grace offered the bus at a reduced cost. Hannaford supermarkets provided water and snacks for the team. “Goffstown has strong roots in baseball,” said Hujsak. “The town community supports us tremendously.”
Matt Riehl, an assistant coach of the team, had “face signs” on sticks made of all the players and handed them out to families to display while they watch the games.
Most of the players’ families plan to attend each game, some staying the nine days of the tournament, others driving three hours each way.
“We live on a farm and have animals to take care of,” said Dutton about commuting to games. “But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”