Girls power Little League contenders

Member of the Toms River Little League All-Stars Kayla Roncin talks about what made her want to start playing baseball and the best part about her Little League team.

Mo'ne Davis and Kayla Roncin almost couldn't help but run into each other last week in Bristol, Connecticut.

As the only two girls among the hundreds of kids on the 52 U.S. teams remaining in the race to the Little League World Series, Davis, 13, who plays for the Taney Youth Baseball Association in Philadelphia, and Roncin, 12, from Toms River, New Jersey, are both competing in the Mid-Atlantic regional. Sunday's final will send the winner to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

"We said 'Hi' and took a couple pictures," Davis said. "It's definitely really cool being the only girls there and showing we can hang with all these boys."

They can do more than hang.

With the New Jersey Little League championship on the line a little more than a week ago, Roncin was brought in to pitch to the opposing team's cleanup hitter -- with a 2-0 count, two outs, the bases loaded and the tying run on third in the bottom of the final inning.

Roncin, a 5-foot-9, 120-pound seventh-grader-to-be, already had crushed a two-run home run when her one and only pitch -- a low fastball -- got the batter to pop up. A diving catch by center fielder Jon Giordano secured the 7-6 victory.

"Having her on the team," said Toms River shortstop and pitcher Nick DeRose, "is the same thing as having another guy, a little different, but we treat her like all the other guys. If she wasn't good, we would still accept her, but she really is good."

A week later in Bristol, playing against a Delaware team that had been to the regionals the past four years and the World Series last year, Davis, who at 5-4 and 105 pounds will enter eighth grade in the fall, struck out 10 batters and gave up a lone questionable hit in 5 1/3 innings of an 8-4 victory.

Both Taney and Toms River are undefeated and continue playing Tuesday in pool play.

"I think it's great that we made it this far, and it would be really cool if we get to play each other," Roncin said.

Roncin remembers watching the 2010 Toms River team in the Little League World Series with her father.

Courtesy of Pete Avallone

Kayla Roncin was 8 when she predicted she would play in Williamsport one day.

"I was 8, and I remember they were all really excited and I wanted to be like that one day," Roncin said. "I told my dad, 'One day when I'm 12, we're going to make it to Williamsport.'"

Roncin's father, Ray, a Toms River assistant coach, said his youngest daughter reminds him of the movie "Hoosiers."

"She's very mature, not self-centered, just a girl who goes out seven days a week, throws and catches 100 balls against a concrete wall and shoots 200 free throws in the driveway," he said.

In the state championship game, Kayla had to deal with a loud group of hecklers, booing when she took the mound then laughing when she bounced in her first three warm-up pitches.

"I was really nervous," she said. "But I was just thinking that if I didn't pitch, we wouldn't win. So I just had to do it for the team and see what happened."

Her teammates, most of whom have played with Roncin for the past five years, "have her back," said coach Pete Avallone. "Her athletic ability stands alone, but her personality fits right in with the team."

If anyone ever gave Davis a hard time, no one can remember it.

"They probably did in the beginning," said Jack Rice, the Dragons' third baseman. "But once the game is done, they know who Mo'ne is and they know she's the real deal."

Davis, who, like Roncin, excels at both baseball and basketball, is hoping to continue her team's unlikely pursuit of a spot in Williamsport. No Little League team from Philadelphia had won its local district tournament, much less the sectional and state titles to earn a chance to play in Williamsport.

Davis' talent was discovered in a rec center league in the city, said her coach, Alex Rice. But it is the intangible qualities she brings to the team that makes her such a valued teammate, he said.

"She has incredible leadership, and you can't shake her; she's unflappable," he said. "Hit a home run off her and she'll just give a little smile and get back to work. She doesn't get rattled."

Her athletic ability stands alone, but her personality fits right in with the team.
Pete Avallone, on Kayla Roncin

Told of the heckling Roncin received, Davis called it "rude."

"No matter who you are, you should be able to do what you like to do and what you've always dreamed of doing," said Davis, whose walk-up song is "Run the World (Girls)" by Beyonce.

To that end, she said, she would love to see her team make it to Williamsport.

"I want to go for the experience and see how everything is," she said. "It would be a great moment in my life and something all kids should get to do."

And if her Taney team happens to meet Toms River in the regional final, with a trip to Williamsport on the line? It would mean the Little League World Series would have its 17th female participant out of the 8,781 players who have competed in 67 years up until this year.

For Davis, it's a little more personal.

"I would actually really like to see how it is to play against another girl in baseball because I never have," she said. "I actually want to see how it feels to be a person on the other team."

The possibility was posed that if the teams do play, she might pitch to Roncin.

"No matter if she hits a home run on me or if I strike her out," Davis said, "I just want to see what I can do."

She's not the only one.

"I think it's cool having a girl on our team," said DeRose, "but having one girl on both teams would be really cool."

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