Captain Jason Siitonen, left, and Head Coach Mike Appalucci, right, helped lead the Marlton 10-year-old Little League to an Aug. 13 victory. Courtesy photo
Captain Jason Siitonen, left, and Head Coach Mike Appalucci, right, helped lead the Marlton 10-year-old Little League to an Aug. 13 victory. Courtesy photo

When Mike Appalucci attended Mass at St. Joan of Arc Church in Marlton Aug. 21, he got a pleasant surprise from Msgr. Richard LaVerghetta, pastor.

“Father Rich gave us a shout out,” Appalucci said. “He was really excited about the whole thing.”

The “us” was a reference to the Marlton Cal Ripken 10-year-old All-Star baseball team. The “whole thing” was Marlton’s impressive accomplishment of winning the Cal Ripken 10-year-old World Series in Vincennes, Ind., which came to pass on Aug. 13 when the Burlington County squad defeated Julington Creek, Fla., in the championship game.

Msgr. LaVerghetta was not only proud of the town’s players, but also of the fact that two of the team’s coaches are St. Joan of Arc parishioners.

Appalucci, an eighth-grade math teacher at William Allen Middle School, Moorestown, is the team’s head coach. He attended St. Joan of Arc School and went on to Bishop Eustace High School, Pennsauken. Captain Jason Siitonen, the Operations Division Commander for the Evesham Police Department, is an assistant coach. He has been a St. Joan’s parishioner for 16 years and his wife Jennifer was baptized there.

Bringing Faith to the Sport

Both men turned to their faith when guiding young players through a maze of pressure-packed games that included district, state and regional championships before claiming the World Series crown.  

“It’s always there,” Appalucci said of his faith. “During the National Anthem I would always put my head down and say a few prayers. I was just thankful to God for that whole run … to be there with my son, his teammates, his friends, and our family. I … was very thankful that the people driving across the country got there safely and had a chance to experience this with their grandkids or siblings playing.”

Apparently, that attitude was passed on to Appalucci’s son, who also found himself turning to God during the experience.

“In the hotel he said, ‘Dad, I had a lot of prayer sessions before the game,’” Appalucci said. “I said, ‘Michael you’re in the World Series … be thankful [to God] for that and see what happens on the field. We all want to win, but we want to make sure we do it the right way regardless of what happens.’”

Siitonen, whose son Aiden is a member of the team, feels his belief system fuels him at his job and in his coaching duties.

“My faith not only guides me, but drives me in my daily life, work and in coaching,” he said. “I am a police officer who is blessed to be able to impact the community and youth. I would not be where I am today … without my relationship with the Lord.  

“I coach and lead [by] thinking of other people and how my actions could impact others,” he continued. “We want our youth players to have that same mindset … being good people first and the sport comes secondary.”    

It was a case of putting sportsmanship ahead of victory. The fact that Marlton won it all by practicing such ideals was a bonus.

“We ask them all the time to be good kids first,” Appalucci said. “We ask them to respect the game, respect their opponents, but go out and compete to the best of their ability.”

World Series in Sight

The team members featured Michael Appalucci, Kyle Burgess, Christopher Cameron, Drew Gable, Kellan Graham, Nick Hopp, Danny Incollingo, Jacob Mcgonigle, Aiden Siitonen, Clayton Westerside, Cole West and Brayden Ziegler. Other coaches were Brian Gable, Scott Graham, Dan Incollingo and Chris West.

“This group of 12 boys and their families are a special group,” Siitonen said. “I coach on our 12U team as well [which finished third in a 64-team National Tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y.] and I can say that Marlton Baseball is blessed to have youth who care about their opponents, umpires, and most importantly, each other.

After hosting and winning the districts, and following up by winning a state title in Delran, Marlton returned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Audubon for the second straight year. Last year they lost in the semifinal but managed to take the next step this time around.  

“We knew the areas in which we needed to improve, and we did just that in the off-season,” Siitonen said. “We challenged the boys … and provided the right amount of support and belief to allow them to reach the next level.”

But first, they had to run through a tough regional gauntlet.

“Our region was phenomenal,” Appalucci said. “We played some of the same teams from last year … I knew winning that regional and playing those teams definitely prepared us for the type of games we played in the World Series.”

And they dominated by going 7-0.    

The field of 20 teams was broken down into four pools of five teams each. Marlton landed in the toughest group against Julington Creek, the Florida State champ; Florence, Ala., the defending World Series champion; Southeastern Lexington, Ky. and Moses Lake, Wa.

Marlton went 4-0 in pool play, giving it the top seed in bracket play. After a first-round bye, they claimed two-run victories over Oahu, Hawaii, and Willamette, Ore., on Friday, Aug. 12. The next day, they took down Julington Creek again, in a 4-3 nail-biter, to start the celebration.

“We came from behind in all three of those (bracket) games,” Appalucci said. “It just showed you the fight this team has.”

Siitonen added that “On this World Series run, all 12 players made a huge impact on the outcome and the boys all wanted to see each other succeed.”

The police captain credited the head coach for creating that mindset.

“Mike Appalucci is a special coach and person,” Siitonen said. “His commitment and vision drive the ship ... I am fortunate to have him as a close friend and even more fortunate to be able to coach with him.”