Trio of Lions’ baseball alumni live out diamond dreams

Coaches who led 16U club to championship represent ‘West Way’

Coaches of the Cherry Hill American Little League’s 16U Senior League team, all of whom graduated from the baseball program at Cherry Hill West: Chandler Dunoff (left), Mark Hutchinson (center) and Nick Kleftogiannis (right) posed with the championship banner on Sept. 27, after the township squad took home a state championship with a 4-1 victory over Roberto Clemente of Jersey City at Al Leiter Field in Bayville.

If they really had their choice, Chandler Dunoff, Mark Hutchinson and Nick Kleftogiannis might have thought twice and sent their regrets about assuming the role of coaches for Cherry Hill American Little League’s 16U Senior League tournament squad.

The amount of work necessary to put the correct mix of players and personalities together in the right positions, with a sound and understandable game strategy within a 30-day window, would be a remarkable achievement.

Lucky for the three men, once they were all on board, it worked out for the best. On Sept. 27, the township squad took home a state championship with a 4-1 victory over Roberto Clemente of Jersey City at Al Leiter Field in Bayville.

“When they were in talks about this district team, it never was that I wasn’t 100-percent on board; it was a matter of knowing if I had enough time to dedicate to the kids,” Hutchinson said. “I knew what was at stake and that we had a good shot to go far.”

Scott Burnham, commissioner of the Cherry Hill American Little League 60/90 Program, stated that, just four years ago, the township did not have a senior division, but in 2020, it could boast five teams.

He additionally revealed that the volunteer coaches made the most of their limited time, meeting multiple times per week for practices, and conferring daily for strategy and planning. The trio hosted Zoom meetings with local coaches more senior in experience, and they called parent coaches from the parking lots to throw batting practices so they could run more active practice sessions.

Over 40 senior division players tried out for the tournament team, with 16 players and three alternates chosen, per Burnham. The trio’s ability to be effective communicators can be directly traced to their time at Cherry Hill West.

“A lot of credit to Dan McMaster, as well as his varsity assistants. They are the key individuals for my growth as a player and person,” Hutchinson said. “They were always up front, honest with us, and that’s one thing I carried with me.

“Honesty and effective communication means you’re going to get the best
out of your team.”

Cherry Hill breezed to victory after a rough first outing against West Deptford, where the club’s lack of experience and cohesion led to a number of on-field gaffes. But six runs that the team surrendered would be the most in any one game for the remainder of the playoffs. Over the remainder of the sectional and state Tournaments, Cherry Hill allowed a grand total of three runs. Their offense was more cohesive from the start, tallying 30 runs
over four contests.

McMaster, who mentored all three Lions alumni who coached the champions, released a statement, acknowledging the privilege of working with Hutchinson, Dunoff and Kleftogiannis as far back as middle school.

“I can say that each were incredibly talented ballplayers, but they were even better young men,” he admitted. “Furthermore, I have seen them work with and build relationships with the next generation of ballplayers in Cherry Hill and you can see the passion and knowledge they have for the game of baseball and the commitment they continually make to give back and help others achieve the same goals that they once accomplished.”

McMaster additionally revealed that what stands out most about mentoring the coaches is the dedication each applied to learning the game and growing as people.

“I won’t remember the stats, or the wins, but will remember how hard these men worked, how they were incredible teammates and leaders within our program,” he continued. “I am so thrilled that they have each found their own voice in the coaching ranks. But I am not surprised, as they were destined for big things from the very beginning.”

Big things now accomplished, Hutchinson said he’s grateful for a breather and the chance to do it all again with more time, space and knowledge of how select Cherry Hill ballplayers can perform at a high level.

“I don’t regret it for a second, and neither did Chandler or Nick. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I’m super excited for next year,” Hutchinson added.