In Rhode Island American Legion, the Fourth of July is a reminder that the end is in sight for the 22-game regular season.
Head coach Steve Reynolds and Upper Deck Post 86/14 have just seven contests remaining before the regular season wraps up in three weeks. Two-time defending state champion Navigant Credit Union Post 85 had 10 games left heading into Thursday’s doubleheader at Gershkoff Post 20 while Collette Vacations Post 79 has a dozen more dates after a doubleheader sweep of Upper Deck on Wednesday night.
This summer’s Senior Division landscape is noticeably leaner and meaner than in recent years, owing to the absence this season of three teams – Riverside Post 10, North Providence Post 29 and Gordon Greene. That left one 12-team division where playoff spots will be awarded to the top eight finishers.
“I like the one division. This is the way they used to do it years ago,” said Upper Deck coach Steve Reynolds.
According to Collette head coach Jim Mello, “the league is much better and much improved. All the games are very good … you don’t have that rollover game. You’re going to have to grind every single night. Hopefully it stays this way as far as the number of teams.”
The opening round of the postseason will comprise four best-of-three series. The surviving teams will then head to West Warwick’s McCarthy Stadium for the Legion ball “Final Four.”
Here’s what has unfolded to date with the Blackstone Valley’s three local squads, and what could be in store as they head down the home stretch.
Navigant Credit Union Post 85
The reigning Legion kings are winners of six of seven, following a 1-2 start. Navigant’s record was 7-3 heading into Thursday’s action, good for second place and a half-game lead over the evening’s opponent, Gershkoff.
If you want to call losing two of three games to begin the season a slow start, go right ahead. According to co-coach Buster Perrault, Post 85 opened the campaign with a number of players who had either played sparingly or not at all during their freshman years in college.
Holdovers from the past two title-winning squads, such as collegians Brandon Rainville (Woonsocket), Matt Bare (Cumberland), Jon Almeida (North Smithfield) and E.J. Torres – a Woonsocket native who hasn’t played competitive baseball at all since capturing MVP honors in last year’s R.I. state tournament – have shaken off the rust and have their sights set on a potential “three peat.”
“I’m very happy with the progress,” Perrault said. “I thought it would take us a little longer to get going, but myself and (fellow co-coach Jim Gauthier) couldn’t be more pleased.”
Rainville is the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff. Perrault said that during Tuesday’s night’s game, even though Providence Post 56 jumped out to a 4-0 lead, Rainville got stronger as the game went on, keeping Navigant within striking distance. Scott Tucker ended up earning the victory in relief after Navigant scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh. The 7-6 triumph helped complete a doubleheader sweep of Providence.
Another key pair of pitchers, Miguel Raymond and John Almeida, teamed up to allow four runs while scattering eight hits in Post 85’s 5-4 walk-off win in the opener against Post 56. Recent Woonsocket High graduate Will Andino turned in a 3-for-4 showing at the plate while Torres roped two doubles.
“E.J. is doing unbelievable for a guy who hasn’t played at all. Will is hitting .500, literally,” Perrault said. “Our pitching is still our strength.”
Navigant will have to make do without the services of Victor Hunt the next few weeks; the 2014 Woonsocket High graduate will be in North Carolina.
Collette Vacations Post 79
According to coach Jim Mello, the turning point for the Pawtucket-based squad happened last weekend during the Gubby Underwood Tournament in Keene, N.H. With the team integrating players from Barrington, Moses Brown and North Providence, the chance to travel together and play against out-of-state competition afforded the Collette contingent a chance to get to know each other.
The early returns from this bonding session have been outstanding – Post 79 has won five straight, including doubleheader sweeps on the road at South Kingstown Post 79 and Upper Deck. This success has catapulted Collette to a 7-5 mark, good for third place and just one game behind second-place Navigant.
“When you bring kids together from different groups, it takes a little while for them to gel and burst out of their comfort zone,” said Mello, now in his second season of his second go-around as Collette’s skipper. “We went 2-2 in Keene, but the trip like this allows for different groups of kids to hang out who may not otherwise.”
Moses Brown now serves as the base school for Collette, supplanting St. Raphael Academy in that role.
“We still have ties to (Pawtucket), but I think Moses Brown gives us a chance to grow moving forward,” Mello said.
Anchoring the pitching staff is Dan O’Brien, a soon-to-be University of Rhode Island Ram and one of five Barrington natives on Collette’s roster. Zach Mittsmen, a 2013 St. Raphael graduate, has also been a dependable arm. The lefty pitcher/center fielder is back in the Ocean State after playing his freshman year for Eckerd College in Florida.
“He’s been gung-ho about wanting to get the ball,” said Mello about Mittsmen, a four-time all-division selection at SRA.
Mello said that for Wednesday’s doubleheader against Post 86/14, Collette fielded their full complement of players for only the second time this season. Post 79’s roster includes local players with ties to St. Raphael (Dylan Boisclair, Sean Sutherland and Ben Roy) and Lincoln High School (Ryan Fournier and John Guarino).
Collette will spent the holiday weekend competing in the Plainville (Conn.) July 4th Tournament.
Upper Deck Post 86/14
The team that relies predominantly on players from Lincoln and Cumberland high schools is finally putting its top talent on the field after a rash of injuries to start the season. The question is whether there is enough time left for Upper Deck to escape the basement and force their way into the playoffs.
The team’s 3-12 record is in part due to the lengthy absences of Doug Harrison, the Lincoln native and 2014 La Salle Academy grad, and Justin Conti, a senior-to-be at Lincoln High. Harrison strained his Achilles tendon in Upper Deck’s season opener, while Conti rolled an ankle running the bases.
Harrison and Conti were both scheduled to see substantial time on the mound, and were both just recently cleared to return.
And Cumberland High grad Jake Keefe was in line to be Upper Deck’s bullpen ace, but hurt his arm in the same game that saw Harrison go down.
“Those are three arms we had to make up for,” said coach Steve Reynolds. “Our pitching has been inconsistent and our defense hasn’t risen to the level that I expected.”
On a positive note, the injuries have paved the way for the club’s younger players to gain experience. Reynolds said that Upper Deck has received strong contributions from Lincoln products Sam Brito, Jeff Sheehan and Alec Cronan. From Cumberland, Tyler Calabro and Josh Brodeur have stood out.
The next week or so will see Upper Deck take a break from Rhode Island competition in an effort to get healthy and re-energized for the stretch run. The highlight of the non-league stretch is a trip to Saratoga, N.Y. to participate in the Burdell Bailey Coopers Cave Tournament.
“We still have an outside shot at the playoffs, but we need to turn it around quickly,” Reynolds said.
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