Tony Cianci and Matt Cononie have, literally, been there since the beginning.
When Gaithersburg Post 295 formed its Junior American Legion team, both players were among the inaugural group five years ago.
Also part of the inaugural Junior Legion team was coach Steve Cononie, who took the reigns of the Senior Legion team after longtime manager Rick Price moved on to coach the Rockville Express. In Cononie’s place, Chris Crosby has taken over the Juniors and continued the program’s success in its first four seasons.
Cononie was influential in founding the Junior Legion team, which has made back-to-back appearances in the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series in Tennessee.
“It was tough because I really didn’t know what we were going to get into,” Cononie said. “I didn’t realize how much pitching you needed for a team that would play 40-plus games in the summer. I went into the season thinking I had eight pitchers that could throw. By the end of the season, I was still trying to develop pitchers.”
On his Senior Legion team, Cononie now has 16 players who can take the mound in a game. Count that as a lesson learned for the team comprised of players from Northwest, Quince Orchard and Seneca Valley high schools.
“Junior Legion was a big building moment,” said first baseman/pitcher Joey Moeltner, who has been with Post 295 four of the previous five years. “We’ve kept growing closer and closer over the past couple years. And we keep coming back because we like the coach, we like the team, we like the teams we play and we win a lot. Senior Legion is just as fun. It has been an easy transition.”
Part of the reason Cononie wanted to start a Junior Legion team was to ensure the younger players in the area received playing experience. Before, the 15- and 16-year-olds would sit on the bench of the Senior Legion games and rarely start or play. With the creation of a Junior Legion program, they received regular game repetitions to better improve their skills and prepare themselves for the future.
“A lot of them would sit on the bench and waste their summers away. The junior team gave these guys a chance to play against competition that was as good if not better than they were,” Cononie said.
Moeltner won a state title with Northwest High School this spring, along with Cianci, the team’s second baseman.
“The team at Northwest that won the states last year was entirely the Junior Legion team the year before. That ought to tell you the quality of baseball,” Cononie said.
Now having been eliminated from the Senior Legion playoffs, a majority of Post 295’s can reflect on the experiences they gained from being members of a Junior Legion team that finished third in the nation last year in Tennessee.
“We were able to run on the University of Tennessee football field. We were able to have a little tour there. We went to all these bar-b-que places. We went go-karting with the team. It was a great experience,” Moeltner said.
Perhaps more than anything, aiding the success of Post 295’s 13-11 senior group this season is the presence of Cononie, from whom the players know what to expect.
“It helps a lot. He has the same coaching technique. Everyone growing up with him, they all know what he's doing. They know what he wants and know what he wants to execute,” said first baseman/third baseman Matt Cononie, who just finished his first year at Montgomery College Germantown.
Cianci, who plans to attend the Citadel next season, agreed and sees the value in the unique experience he has received by being able to play with roughly the same teammates for five seasons.
“I’ve played with these guys throughout my whole life. Nothing’s really changed. We still have a good time on the field. Shooting the crap and just having fun together,” he said. “I think that’s what’s good about this team.”