Robbinsville becomes softball capital

In a town with divided baseball loyalties, softball has unified the 15,000 residents of Robbinsville, N.J. Courtesy of Scott Benner

Nestled halfway between Philadelphia and New York City lies a small suburban town called Robbinsville. It sits in central New Jersey, about 45 miles from Taney, home to Mo'ne Davis and the Mid-Atlantic Regional championship Little League baseball team.

The people who live in Robbinsville are almost all originally from somewhere else. They cheer for the Phillies, Mets and Yankees, and there are even some Red Sox fans in this 20 square-mile melting pot town of 15,000 people.

No one really argues baseball in Robbinsville because of that diversity. But they do find one unifying thing to cheer about: Little League softball.

Over the past seven years, Robbinsville has sprung up as arguably the biggest hotbed of girls' softball players in the country. It's the only town in the U.S. to have reached the Little League Softball World Series four times in that time frame, and this year's squad just might be the best yet. The girls enter Tuesday night's semifinal round (ESPN2, 9 p.m.) as a legit contender to win their first LLWS softball title.

So why is Robbinsville so good? There were just 32 players in the town's 2014 12-year-old recreational program this past year. How could a town with 32 girls emerge out of the thousands of other, bigger towns?

Most of the answers are cliché, and could describe any of Robbinsville's competitors this past week at the LLWS.

The girls practice hard, are dedicated and confident and work together as a team. But that goes for all of the teams that qualified.

And then someone mentions the thing that might be Robbinsville's little secret: They support one another far beyond the norm.

The younger girls often arrive early to practice so they can support and learn from the older girls. They travel to each other's games to cheer, and elaborately decorate teammates' homes before the beginning of the all-star season. Mostly, they provide motivation by example. "There's an expectation in Robbinsville and I want to live up to it," said Alexa Petito, the team's third baseman.

They are likely too young to realize it, but they are role models for each other -- strong female peers who will mature into women who support, challenge and lift up one another.

That establishes a pipeline with the younger girls -- there's a genuine sense that someday, the 10-year-olds who just won their East Regional will be 12-year-olds who win their East Regional, then hand over the keys (and some softball wisdom) to the next generation.

That support isn't just limited to Robbinsville softball teams, either. On their one day off at the LLWS, the 12-year-old team participated in the Little League Challenger game. The Little League Challenger division is for any boy or girl ages 4 to 22 with a physical or developmental challenge. There are Challenger leagues all over the country and, when necessary, the players are accompanied on the field by a buddy, usually a parent, who assists them if needed.

The players said the Challenger game was an incredible experience that also served as an unexpected lesson during their last days of Little League.

"We kind of forget how much fun it is," said Allie Taylor, a second baseman on the Robbinsville team. "I think we got lost in all of the commotion of being here and we didn't realize that we are here to have fun."

Robbinsville finished pool play Monday with a record of 4-0. The girls defeated Canada 3-0, were awarded a 6-0 decision when Asia Pacific had to forfeit due to travel issues, scored 12 runs on 10 hits on their way to a 12-1 victory over the U.S. Southwest team and finally closed out pool play with a decisive 11-1 win against the U.S. West.

Next for the 20-0 team: two games, starting Tuesday night, to win a national title.