Cumberland American teammates Nick Croteau, CJ Davock, Jayden Struble and Tyler Shaw, watch the Williston, Vt. Little League team warm up prior to the start of a game at Breen Field in Bristol, Conn. on Wednesday. The team faces Fairfield, Conn. in the New England finals Saturday.
(Photo by Ernest A. Brown)
BRISTOL, Conn. — The stakes have never been higher for manager Dave Belisle and his Cumberland American All-Stars Little League squad. Come Saturday night the local lads and coaches who have thus far traveled a long and successful road, vie for New England region supremacy – with a national audience watching. The game will air live on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m.
A win means a trip to fabled Williamsport, Pa., the home of the world-renowned Little League World Series. The last team standing in Cumberland American’s way is Fairfield (Conn.) American, the region’s top seed and the club responsible for dealing Belisle & Co. their first and only loss of the summer. Even though both teams finished pool play with matching 3-1 records, CALL had to settle for the No. 2 seed thanks to Fairfield’s Jamie Fink delivering a two-out, two-run home run in the last of the sixth inning this past Tuesday. The walk-off blast broke a 3-all deadlock.
“We’re looking at it as a second chance to beat them,” Belisle said. “I like the fact that we’ve already played them once. I didn’t mind losing to them because I thought we played well and tough.
“The kids are confident and I think Connecticut brings out the focus in them. They welcome the challenge and know this is for all the marbles, so we’ll see.”
From a managerial standpoint, Belisle will look to provide consistency for his squad as it stands on the cusp of reaching the World Series for the second time in three years.
“Just the way I’ve been coaching them, I try not to do things differently than what we’ve done in the past. That would open the door for them to possibly question their abilities,” Belisle said. “I want to keep it the same.”
One difference beyond his control is that this time, there’s less margin for error. In the district and state tournaments, Lincoln and Cranston Western would have had to topple Cumberland American twice in order to advance. As it turned out, CALL didn’t need to fall back on its two-game cushion in either case.
Saturday’s New England final will be one game, win or lose. It’ll be only the second time this summer that Cumberland faced potential elimination – the first being Thursday’s semi-final game against Falmouth.
Friday was a welcome rest from competition for Cumberland American following four straight days of intense action. The team was slated to practice late in the afternoon in an effort to get their minds and bodies prepared for Saturday evening’s start time.
“It would have been difficult getting back out there (Friday) with the momentum flying Connecticut’s way,” Belisle said, referencing Thursday’s semifinals where CALL needed eight innings to beat Falmouth while Fairfield American barely broke a sweat in a 9-0 rout of Barnstable (Mass.) American..
“It’s good that we settled back down and addressed things that we needed to fix … a couple of things offensively and defensively,” he said,
The scouting report on Fairfield is that of an aggressive offensive team that puts the ball in play, paired with a deep and talented pitching staff.
“They don’t strike out a lot so they’re going to put pressure on our defense,” said Belisle. “Offensively, their pitching staff is tough. They have a couple lefties so they give you different looks.”
As far as the young man who will draw the starting nod for Cumberland, Belisle will likely turn to Nick Croteau. Not only was he phenomenal in relief on Thursday against Falmouth, but he also didn’t pitch in the game against Fairfield. C.J. Davock and Brendan Wright are also available. One of Belisle’s key starters, Addison Kopack, has reached his pitch limit according to Little League rules, thus eliminating him from championship-game consideration.
Belisle spent part of his Friday morning meeting with the ESPN production crew that will be looking to tell his team’s story. It’s just another reminder of the pressure cooker these Cumberland American players will find themselves in come first pitch Saturday night. Beslisle has been here before, having guided the 2011 CALL team to a New England championship, but his players will be on a bigger stage than most young athletes ever get a chance to experience.
“The effort is going to be there, but they’re 12-year-olds. I don’t know how they’re going to handle the pressure of a championship game,” said Belisle. “As their coach, I have to keep them on an even keel and let them know that we’re going to play our game. Our focus is going to be there every pitch, which I preach all the time.”
Belisle says he and his coaches will be responsible for putting the players in a position to succeed no matter what happens.
“I want them to know that their coaches have been there before and not to worry,” he said. I’ll be able to handle putting people in the right situations and do it with action, not with words.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03
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