By Phil Anastasia
Nick Cieri and Jon Gonzales knew there was something special about Brooklawn American Legion baseball.
But the two standout athletes didn't fully appreciate the commitment to excellence of perhaps South Jersey's premier youth-sports program until they put on those blue and red uniforms.
"It's been just what I hoped it would be," said Cieri, a Rancocas Valley High School graduate.
Said Gonzales, a Winslow Township HS graduate: "It's been exciting to be part of such a great program. I knew about Brooklawn but I didn't realize what it was like until I got a chance to play with these guys."
Cieri and Gonzales have made a major impact for a Brooklawn team that won its 27th state title last weekend.
Brooklawn will host the American Legion Mid-Atlantic Regional, which starts Thursday at Campbell's Field in Camden.
The winner of the double-elimination tournament, which runs through Monday, will advance to the American Legion World Series Aug. 16-20 in Shelby, N.C.
Brooklawn opens play Thursday night at 7 p.m. against Funkstown, Md. Legendary Brooklawn manager Joe Barth Sr., who started the team in 1952, will throw out the first pitch.
Other games in Thursday's opening round will feature New Castle, Del. vs. Twin Valley, Pa. at 9:30 a.m.; Boyertown, Pa. vs. West Seneca, N.Y. at 12:30 p.m. and South Charlestown, W.V. vs. Gibbsboro -- the New Jersey state runner-up -- at 4 p.m.
Brooklawn's program has traditionally featured many players from the powerful Gloucester Catholic baseball team.
This season is no different as the team includes many top players from Gloucester Catholic's 2013 Non-Public A state champions, including pitchers Mike Shawaryn and John Murphy as well as shortstop Phil Dickinson -- all of whom were first-team All-South Jersey selections.
But in a bit of a twist, Brooklawn this year added a couple of top players from outside their traditional "sending district" in Cieri and Gonzales.
Both players were eligible to play for Brooklawn as representative of the American Legion programs that normally attract players from Rancocas Valley and Winslow Township, respectively, signed waivers to allow the athletes' participation with another American Legion team.
Cieri was a three-time Carpenter Cup player and two-time All-South Jersey player for RV. He batted .500 last season with 15 extra-base hits despite missing the second half of the season with a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder.
Cieri has caught and also played third base for Brooklawn. He said he is fully recovered from his shoulder injury.
Cieri is batting .427 for Brooklawn (37-8) this summer. He has eight doubles, eight homers and 43 RBIs.
"It's been a great experience," Cieri said. "We practice so much but the program is set up to make every player better. That's just what I wanted before college."
Cieri will attend the University of Maryland. He will be roommates with Shawaryn.
Gonzales was a three-time All-South Jersey player for Winslow. Last season, he led South Jersey with 10 HRs and also hit 13 doubles.
Gonzales has caught and played third, left field and first for Brooklawn. Gonzales is batting .375 with eight doubles, three homers and 37 RBIs.
"Every player does whatever it takes to win that game," Gonzales said. "I haven't bunted in years and when I got here I was asked to bunt to a runner in. That's what this program is like."
Gonzales will attend Howard College, a two-year community college in Big Spring, Tx.
Brooklawn has been renown for years for the commitment of its players, who sacrifice their summers to be part of their hard-core program.
"In high school, you get days off, holidays off," Gonzales said. "I don't think they (Brooklawn coaches) believe in holidays."
Brooklawn was assured a berth in the regional as the host team. But the Brookers punched their ticket by winning the state tournament (Gibbsboro, which finished second in the state tournament, will be NJ's other representatative).
Cieri said Brooklawn players are determined to win the regional as the host squad and advance to the World Series. Brooklawn finished second in last year's World Series.
"We're definitely not satisfied," Cieri said. "It's exciting to be the host team and playing in such as nice stadium. Hopefully, we can draw some good crowds and keep going all the way to the World Series.
"That's been our goal from the start."
-- Phil Anastasia