Northeast Times

Band of brothers

It’s been a summer to remember at Liberty Bell, where chemistry off the field has led to wins — a lot of wins — on the baseball diamond.

Team of des­tiny: The Liberty Bell Youth Or­gan­iz­a­tion 16- to 18-year-old team has gone a com­bined 32-4 across two sum­mer leagues. Com­prised of all loc­al high school play­ers, many of them have been team­mates for close to a dec­ade. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

When Ken Hoff­man was asked what he’ll cher­ish most about his 16- to 18-year-old Liberty Bell Youth Or­gan­iz­a­tion base­ball team when the sea­son wraps up soon, his an­swer had noth­ing to do with wins and losses.

Sure, his squad has won more than it has lost — a lot more, in fact — but Hoff­man’s mind doesn’t dart dir­ectly to­ward the 32 wins in 36 games, the re­cent no-hit­ter or his stacked roster that re­sembles a high school all-star team. Rather, it’s watch­ing in awe as the play­ers he’s coached for years de­vel­op in­to ma­ture young men, all while en­joy­ing the game they love with the same joy that brought them to Hoff­man as kids in the first place.

“It’s this right here,” Hoff­man said as he watched his boys glee­fully goof around nearby while the coach chat­ted with a vis­it­ing re­port­er on the eve of a cham­pi­on­ship game at Palmer Play­ground. “That broth­er­hood and friend­ship they’ve built with each oth­er sticks out the most. The fun they’re hav­ing, watch­ing them play to­geth­er and see­ing them turn on a switch when they hit this field. They love this game, and you can see it. They know they have something spe­cial go­ing on here.”

Hoff­man, the base­ball dir­ect­or at Liberty Bell, is the ar­chi­tect of a team com­prised of star play­ers from area high schools that has marched nearly un­bridled through two sep­ar­ate sum­mer leagues: The Tri-State Elite League and the Lower Bucks County Seni­or Babe Ruth League. Liberty Bell has faced some of the best teams in New Jer­sey in Tri-State, as well as strong sub­urb­an Pennsylvania squads in Babe Ruth. Liberty Bell won the Babe Ruth cham­pi­on­ship game against Tri-Town­ship on Tues­day night, 4-2; a Tri-State League semi­final is sched­uled to fol­low on Fri­day against the Ti­gers of Bell­mawr, N.J.

The team is a mish­mash of dif­fer­ent high schools — Ry­an, Judge, Wash­ing­ton, Frank­lin Towne, Swen­son, MaST Charter, Rush, Ro­man and the Haver­ford School — that con­sists of neigh­bor­hood kids who all live with­in a few miles of Liberty Bell headquar­ters at Palmer, at Comly and Thornton roads. Most have been play­ing un­der Hoff­man since they were tykes (some as long as a dec­ade) and have had suc­cess in the past, win­ning city titles and get­ting to play twice at Cit­izens Bank Park.

However, what they’ve all ac­com­plished this year has been dif­fer­ent. Much dif­fer­ent.

“Heart and hustle is our biggest thing,” said Ry­an Con­ner of MaST, one of the team’s top pitch­ers who has played for Hoff­man for 10 years. “When you play as one, the wins come and come and come.”

“Be­ing able to feel what I’m feel­ing, I can’t even put it in­to words,” said Frank­lin Towne’s Phil Gil­christ, with Liberty Bell for sev­en years. “We’re play­ing 11 months out of the year, and we all wake up will­ingly dur­ing the sum­mer to prac­tice on 100-de­gree days. We give it our all, and that’s how we’ve come away with 32 and 4.”

Team mem­bers in­clude Ro­ger Han­son, Ed Tingle and Ish­mael Bracy (Wash­ing­ton); Con­ner and Bri­an Kaelin (MaST); Gil­christ and Rob Henry (Towne); Ken Hoff­man, the coach’s son, and Jim Hu­s­ton (Judge); Matt Wilson, Nick Centeno, Ry­an & Sean Heck­manski (broth­ers), TJ Hirschbul and An­thony Fratan­duono (Ry­an); An­thony Moore (Rush); Chris­ti­an Von Hofen (Ro­man); and Dan Bor­ine (Haver­ford). Des­pite the pleth­ora of teams (some of which are fierce rivals dur­ing high school sea­son), count­less play­ers tossed around words like “fam­ily” and “broth­er­hood.”

There are no egos; just a bunch of best friends who love to play the game to­geth­er.

“We play for the name on the front of the jer­sey, not the back,” said Henry, the team’s young­est play­er. “I got here as a nobody fresh­man and found a bunch of guys who took me in. I feel really close to them.”

“We come from dif­fer­ent high schools, sure, but we nev­er carry that on to the field with us when we play,” said Nieves, an All-Pub­lic League se­lec­tion the last three sea­sons at Swen­son. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t en­joy be­ing here.”

Or, as Bor­ine simply put it: “We’re more than a team. We’re a band of broth­ers.”

Many of these play­ers are stars on their high school teams, but so rarely do people ex­am­ine the ori­gins from whence they came, the play­grounds and youth or­gan­iz­a­tion where they de­veloped be­fore win­ning league titles, as Bracy, Tingle and Han­son did this sea­son at Wash­ing­ton. In fact, of the 19 play­ers on Hoff­man’s roster, roughly half have played for him at Liberty Bell for five years or longer. In a day and age when many sum­mer teams stock­pile the most tal­en­ted play­ers from all over the place, there’s something to be said about the squads that stick with the same team where they got their start.

In Liberty Bell’s case, loy­alty wins out, be­cause it’s that qual­ity that has built tight team chem­istry and ushered in all those wins and cham­pi­on­ships over the years.

“This sea­son alone has been spe­cial be­cause we’ve won so much,” the young­er Hoff­man said. “But what makes it truly unique is we’ve known each oth­er and been friends for so long. Oth­er teams may have more tal­ent or bet­ter play­ers, but none have as strong a chem­istry as we do.”

The mu­tu­al love the play­ers and head coach have for each oth­er is ob­vi­ous. Mul­tiple play­ers re­ferred to Hoff­man as a second fath­er, and he in turn made it seem like he had 19 sons on this team, in­stead of just one. That, and not Tingle’s re­cent play­off no-hit­ter or the 2.23 staff ERA, is what all of these in­di­vidu­als will take from this spec­tac­u­lar sum­mer ex­per­i­ence.

“I’ve been play­ing for Ken since I was 8, and I wouldn’t be half the play­er I am today without him,” said Bracy, a rising star at G.W. “I’ve nev­er known an­oth­er coach out­side the high school level. He’s a ma­gi­cian.”

“He puts his time, money and everything he has in­to us,” echoed Tingle. “And I ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

“It’s in­spir­ing and in­flu­en­tial to see how much our coach cares,” Moore said. “He’s a role mod­el to all of us.”

Ad­ded Con­ner: “He’ll do any­thing for us, and that’s what a coach needs to do. He’s the reas­on we’re all still here. If we didn’t have him, what we’re do­ing wouldn’t be nearly as spe­cial.”

Hoff­man is why the Liberty Bell play­ers are push­ing them­selves to the max dur­ing the swel­ter­ing sum­mer months, choos­ing to “work our butts off for him,” as Kaelin said, in­stead of go­ing down the shore or laz­ing by the pool. That sen­ti­ment is not lost on the coach; and while he’s happy his boys have vir­tu­ally run the table across two sep­ar­ate leagues, Hoff­man is prouder how they’ve de­veloped in­to com­mend­able young men un­der his watch.

Base­ball, and the wins and cham­pi­on­ships that have come with it, is en­tirely sec­ond­ary.

“The en­joy­ment I get out of it is watch­ing them grow in­to good young men,” Hoff­man said. “I hope that 10, 15 years from now, they’ll stay in the neigh­bor­hood and come back here to coach their own kids. That’s what I feel like I’m do­ing … giv­ing back. It’s all about the kids. You miss out on a lot of fam­ily time when you coach as much as I do, but it’s all be­cause of these boys.

“They can be do­ing any­thing in the sum­mer­time, but they want to be here. They love this game and want to use it to push them­selves to get to col­lege. People say win­ning cures all ills, but to see these kids hav­ing fun and for­ging lifelong friend­ships, that’s the fun part. They all play the game the right way. They get it. Are we dys­func­tion­al some­times? Yeah, but you know what? That’s fam­ily.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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