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A new generation of Concord Little League state champions

For those in the know, there’s a clear family resemblance.

“Everyone says that my little guy looks just like me out there,” Nate Craigue said.

His “little guy” is Brooks Craigue, who is on the Concord Little League 9/10-year-old all-star team that just won the state championship last week and is headed to Cranston, R.I., this week for the Eastern Regional Tournament.

Not only does Brooks look like his dad, but now he’s carrying on a family tradition. Nate, who was drafted out of Concord High and played for two years in the Minnesota Twins farm system, was on the 11/12-year-old all-star team from Concord National Little League that won the state championship in 1988 and played in a regional tournament in Bristol, Conn. And Nate’s dad, Ken, was on a Little League all-star team that won a state title in 1968.

“It’s kind of weird,” said Nate, who is an assistant coach for Brooks’s 9/10 all-star team. “Down at Cimo’s (South End Deli) he’s got pictures from those teams. He’s got my dad, he’s got me and now it looks like he’ll have to add Brooks.”

That isn’t Cimo’s only connection to this team. Some of the players were at the store this weekend trying to raise money to help cover expenses for the trip to Rhode Island and the response was overwhelming.

“My son Ryan and another kid were at Cimo’s for four hours and they raised about $500. People were so supportive. There’s just something about Little League that gets people excited,” said Tom Philbrick, the team’s head coach. “It was great watching the people talk to the kids and tell them about their Little League experiences. … The kids loved it. They were so proud. My son would have stayed for eight hours. He did it today but he’s going back out tomorrow just because he loved being out there.”

People may react kindly to Little Leaguers asking for donations, but fewer and fewer kids have been playing, which is why Concord American and Concord National merged into one league this year. There was hope that a byproduct of the merger would be more success in all-star tournaments (the two leagues each had their own all-star teams in the past), and that has certainly helped, but there’s more to it than that.

“The talent is there, some of these kids play way above their years, but I think the coaching has had a lot do with it, too,” league President Bob Pothier said. “The way this team plays defense, hitting cut-offs and knowing where to throw the ball, it’s been incredible.”

But the coaches (Philbrick, Craigue and Rickey Gaudreault) give the credit to the kids – Craigue, Iaiah Robles, Ryan Philbrick, Josh Aubertine, Cam McGonigle, Noah Brent, Austin Hazzard, Jamie Bruns, Max Grant, Chris Burke, Aidan Miller and Kalan Gaudreault.

“We have a really athletic group of kids, and I’ve coached a lot of these kids in hockey, too, and we won a hockey state championship (with the Concord Capitals), so I kind of knew we’d have a good team,” Philbrick said. “But you never know with baseball. We’ve won a lot of close games and had contributions from every kid, a lot of unsung heroes.”

The team didn’t lose a game in the first stage of the state tournament, winning all seven of its contests in the District II round robin. After that, they beat Portsmouth in dramatic fashion to claim the district championship.

Concord was down to its last strike against Portsmouth when Brent delivered a two-out double to tie the game and Robles, the No. 8 hitter, followed with a two-run triple. Concord sealed the 4-2 win with the defense that’s become its trademark, a 3-6 double play started by first baseman Hazzard and finished by shortstop Craigue at second base. Concord also got a stellar, and somewhat surprising, pitching performance that day from McGonigle, who hadn’t started a game on the mound for the all-stars but was called on because the normal starters – Craigue, Philbrick and Hazzard – had all reached their pitch limit.

Beating Portsmouth put Concord into a three-game state championship series against Jaffrey/Rindge, and once again it was all about defense. Concord lost the first game, 3-2, but came back to win the second game, 1-0, behind the pitching of Craigue, and then won the title with a 3-2 victory.

“That was just an incredible series,” Philbrick said. “It was a defensive battle.”

It also furthered the parallels between the generations of Craigues.

“When I was 12 I pitched in game two in the state championship and then Brooks pitched game two,” Nate said. “The similarities are really strange.”

The Concord team will leave for Rhode Island on Friday, participate in the opening ceremonies on Saturday and play its first game on Sunday against the Connecticut representative. The regional tournament is divided into two groups – the six New England states will play a round robin against one another and five mid-Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey) will play one another. The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals, and those winners will meet in the final on Aug. 9.

There will be a $10 all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner at The Common Man in Concord on Wednesday to help raise funds for the team. If you can’t make it there but want to make a donation, contact Pothier at seawolf82@tds.net.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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