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Jul. 22—NEW LONDON — A bunch of high school kids sat at the head table Wednesday night, their fun only interrupted with intervals of shoveling in food. Go figure. Kids from a few different towns all proudly wearing green and gold at the table headlined by a banner that read, "15-year-old Babe Ruth State Champions."
This was at the Elks, home to a pasta dinner fundraiser to help costs associated with New London's trip to the regionals beginning Friday in Trumbull. After kids, coaches, parents and friends endured repeated trips to Milford last week for the state tournament — learning all over again that Connecticut leads the league in traffic — they all decided hotels would be more practical this week.
Happily, there is "this week" for the program. Finally, after what's felt like too long of a lapse, there's a New London team back in The Big Game. No, the kids aren't all from New London on this Babe Ruth team — Lisbon and Montville, too — but then that's kind of the point.
"The greatest thing about this team is how well they get along," New London coach (and former Whaler) Derrel Mitchell said. "They fight for each other and believe in each other. Nobody wants to disappoint any of the others. They all have the same goal."
Turns out people from different towns and backgrounds can actually fight for each other — and not with each other. Might there be a greater lesson here?
"It's amazing," said assistant coach Hector Aquino, a behavior interventionist at Jennings School (who is superb at his job). "We've had this group for a few years doing tournaments all over. They've known each other and have played against each other in high school. Now they blend here. And have since day one."
Nothing else defines the whole "Whaler" thing better than tradition. Aquino is trying to teach that lesson.
"I'm born and raised in New London. Little League all the way up," he said. "To see the kids accomplish these things is amazing. This is their chance to build memories. I tell them about my playing days and the kids say 'coach, you still remember?' I nod and tell them, 'you'll never forget it this.'"
Across the room came all the proof Aquino needed. Mike Tonucci's son, Chris, is a first-year member of the team. Tonucci was part of Jim O'Neill's first New London American Legion World Series team in the mid-80s. Now he gets to experience similar fireworks with his son. Nothing better.
"We live in Lisbon," Tonucci said. "I gave Chris the option of playing with Jewett City Legion, AAU or here. He says, 'Dad, I want to play with the New London guys.' When they won (the state tournament) last week, he comes up to me so happy and says, 'Dad, thanks for all the rides and everything you did this week.'"
Tonucci grinned and said, "I had to turn away or I was about to, you know ... "
Meanwhile, the team is awash in moments. Plenty of them.
"Things have been chaotic," Mitchell said. "With trying to gather money, make sure we have everything in order, get the hotels, practice, go to work ... Then we coaches and parents have to figure out how we're going to get off work for the next week."
New London Babe Ruth officials say there's still time to contribute to defray the cost of hotels, gas, meals and other travel expenses. Send a check to New London Babe Ruth care of John Satti, 27 Woodlawn Road in New London.
Anybody with an appreciation for sports around here knows that things are better and more interesting when New London is good. Maybe that's why a bunch of kids got Mayor Mike Passero and state representative Anthony Nolan out to the Elks on Wednesday, too. They know how sports unite us.
"We're not just happy to be here. Winning this would mean a lot," Mitchell said. "It would give kids a chance to see you can do things outside of New London. Have success outside this area. Sports can get you beyond the parameters. What I'd love is for us to get more kids back into Babe Ruth."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.