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The toughest division in high school softball just got a whole lot tougher.
Yes, the heavyweights are back in Division I-North -- state finalist Mount St. Charles, Cumberland, and Lincoln -- and with each team only losing a couple of key players to graduation, they should again be forces to be reckoned with this spring.
And so should the other two teams in the division. Gone is the leagueâ€™s weak sister for the past two years, St. Raphael, but replacing the Saints are always-tough La Salle, which has been 45-21 over the last four years, and Smithfield, the Division IIâ€™s winningest team over the past five seasons.
â€śItâ€™s the black and blue division,â€ť offered Cumberland coach Marty Crowley. â€śYou take the three of us and bring La Salle and Smithfield over and you have a very, very tough division.
â€śYou have to come to play every day and thatâ€™s good in a way because you want to challenge yourself, and hopefully, that will translate into being better prepared for a postseason run.â€ť
The RIILâ€™s realignment also placed East Providence in the Division I-Central with crosstown foe Bay View, Warwick Vets, Cranston West, and Division II power Barrington, while in the South sits two-time state champion Coventry, North Kingstown, Chariho, Toll Gate, and Westerly.
And while the RIIL separated the 15 teams into three leagues, they also made qualifying for the postseason a bit tougher for the teams in the North. The top four teams from each league will earn a spot in the playoffs, with the regular-season champion earning a first-round bye.
â€śThose eight games we play (in the North) are the season,â€ť MSC coach Cliff Mathews admitted. â€śYou can go 12-6 and not get into the playoffs if you lose those six games in your division. Itâ€™s frightening, especially when you look at the teams that are in our division.â€ť
â€śWhoever comes out of our division as the division championship, it will be well earned,â€ť added Crowley. â€śI think were all pretty evenly matched and we all have talent. Itâ€™s going to be a great season.â€ť
The Division II circuit is also offering a new look with four leagues, two that will gain a lot of interest among Blackstone Valley softball teams.
In the East, Tolman and St. Raphael will be part of a group that also includes Classical, Mount Hope, Tiverton, and Moses Brown, and in the North resides Division III champ Woonsocket, Burrillville, North Smithfield, Ponaganset, Scituate, and North Providence.
Defending Division II champion Exeter/West Greenwich, which along with Moses Brown and Middletown, are perceived as the teams to beat, are in the Central with East Greenwich, Johnston, Pilgrim, West Warwick, and Cranston East, and the South contains South Kingstown, Narragansett, Middletown, Prout, Rogers, and Portsmouth.
With the Villa Novans in Division II, the nine-team Division III chase for the title expects to be a four-team battle between local teams Central Falls, Shea, and Davies and state finalist Central.
Bishop Keough, Mount Pleasant, Hope, the new Our Lady of Fatima/Rocky Hill co-op team, and first-year Block Island squad round out the division.
Hereâ€™s a glance at the three divisions and the Blackstone Valleyâ€™s teams that play in each of them.
With five All-Division selections returning to their lineup, including 2010 All-State junior shortstop Emily Hendricks and â€™09 All-State senior third baseman Nicole Silva, the Mounties (18-6 last year) will try to claim their third straight regular-season title.
Hendricks led the Mounties in hits (35), runs scored (22) and batting average (.430), while Silva, who inked a letter of intent to play for Division I Bucknell University of the Patriot League, missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, but still racked up 22 hits and a .478 average.
Junior ace pitcher Olivia Hendricks, who led all of Division I with 18 wins, is also back, as are senior catcher Alyssa Lanzi, senior first baseman Nicole Grinsell, junior center fielder Taylor Messier, and senior right fielder Hannah Gardella.
Junior designated hitter Aria DiMeo and senior left fielder Erin Rouleau also return, and two underclassmen to watch for are sophomore outfielder Cassie Gould and freshman infielder Briana Castro.
The Clippers, who went 15-6 last year (their best mark in nine seasons) bring back one of the stateâ€™s premier players in senior Bethany Paul. On the mound, the All-Stater was 12-5 with five shutouts, a 1.41 ERA, and 146 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings, and at the plate, Paul had a team-leading .429 average, .619 slugging percentage, and 24 runs scored.
Paul bats third in a formidable lineup that also has five other veteran seniors -- catcher and fellow tri-captain Kristen Peffer, second baseman and tri-captain Christina Speroni, shortstop Kaitlyn Pluta, first baseman Kelsey Cahill, and left fielder/No. 2 pitcher Kayleigh Martins.
Sophomore center fielder and leadoff batter Bridget Connors is another key to the Clippersâ€™ attack, and sophomore right fielder Sam Bertherman and junior third baseman Rebecca Geddes round out the starting nine.
The Lions, who were 13-6 last year, also return a talented All-State player in senior Alyssa McCoart, who led Lincoln in batting average (.417), slugging percentage (.750), and RBIs (19). McCoart, who signed a letter of intent to Division I Central Connecticut State University, also won seven games (four of them against division leaders) and had an ERA under 1.00.
McCoart split the pitching duties with sophomore shortstop and leadoff batter Lindsay Mayer, who established herself as the best underclassman in the state last season.
Also back for the Lions are senior second baseman Barbara Jackson, senior first baseman Chelsea Brennan, senior left fielder Marissa Walsh, junior center fielder Emma Hart, and junior catcher Allie Dzialo.
Surprisingly, the Townies have endured back-to-back losing seasons, going 13-21 during that stretch, but that could change this year with a talented team whose strengths are in the junior and sophomore classes.
Seniors Courtney DeCastro (left field) and Alyssa Rizzini (designated hitter) lead the Townies, who also bring back sophomore pitcher Lauren Discuillo, junior second baseman Alyssa Dias, sophomore catcher Lindsee Allienello, and junior center fielder Amanda Horton.
One of the big stories of last season was Tolmanâ€™s successful march in its first year as a Division II team. The Tigers, who were 50-3 in their previous three seasons as a Division III entry, went 13-7 in the Division II-South circuit and knocked off a few of the leagueâ€™s top teams along the way.
Gone from that team is Tolmanâ€™s ace pitcher for the past four years, Micayla Kirylo, but sophomore Olivia Larson and junior Alex Lacoste will be looking to fill in her shoes. Lacoste was also the Tigersâ€™ shortstop and leadoff batter a season ago.
A huge returnee for the Tigers this season is senior catcher Veronica LeJeune, who led the team in nearly every offensive category last season.
Senior left fielder Jessica Treanor also returns, as does an exceptional group of sophomores, led by Jordyn Klemanchuck (third base), Ashley Clark (center field), Brittany Bilodeau (second base), and Jazmine Almeida (right field).
Woonsocket makes the move to this division after a dominant 17-1 season in Division III that saw them cruise to the championship.
Junior catcher and No. 3 batter Kelsey Boucher is the Villa Novansâ€™ marquee standout, while senior outfielders Brooke Badeau and junior infielder Caitlyn Marcoux are also excellent players.
The Novans also bring back other veterans such as senior outfielder Katelyn Kerrigan, senior second baseman Kearly Staples, junior outfielder Allyson Cartier, junior pitcher Michaela Ward, and sophomore first baseman Amanda Alexion.
Last spring was a breakthrough season for Burrillville, which reached double figures in victories (10) for the first time in more than a decade. With a strong group of players returning, including senior captain and center fielder Megan Mockler, the Broncos could be in store for bigger and better things.
Sophomore pitcher Cassidy Tedeschi is back after a solid freshman year, and classmate Ashley Spear returns at third base and the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
After winning just once over the past two seasons in Division I, St. Raphael Academy finds itself in Division II with a new head coach (Ron LaBree) and a young 14-player roster with seven sophomores and three freshmen. Senior Danielle Peloquin is the Saintsâ€™ most experienced player.
North Smithfield also sports a young squad this season with eight freshmen and four sophomores among its 14 players. The Northmen, who have just 12 victories in the last four seasons, are led by senior Kasey Gesualdi and junior Sidra Ethier.
Ponaganset hopes to bounce back from a 4-16 record -- the Chieftainsâ€™ worst mark in four years -- behind a talented team thatâ€™s dominated by sophomores and juniors. Shortstop Leah Lemoine and catcher Kerri Nadeau are the senior co-captains.
Three of last seasonâ€™s four playoff teams (Central Falls, Davies, and Central) are returning and have the talent to return to the postseason, as well as Shea, which more than doubled its victories from the previous year and should also end up with double digits in the win column.
The Warriors, who finished in fourth place last year with an 11-5 record and have totaled 31 wins over the last three seasons, has one of the leagueâ€™s most experienced teams, guided by senior ace pitcher Solyris Vega, senior catcher Holly Webb, and senior third baseman Melanie Velez.
The Raiders, meanwhile, went 9-7 last season and came up two wins shy of qualifying for the playoffs. While some of the key contributors from that team is gone, they do boast one of the divisionâ€™s finest pitchers in senior fireballer Courtney Fenton and all-around shortstops in sophomore Jenna Senecal.
The Patriots have been 52-18 and a frequent Division III playoff participant in their four years as a fastpitch team, but now they will seek a fifth straight trip to the playoffs minus the services of their ace pitcher for the past four springs, Jen March.
But the cupboard isnâ€™t bare for new head coach Scott Cooper, who has senior Dy,Ann Cardona, junior Wilmarie Cruz, and sophomore Kaitlin Flynn leading his lineup and returning from last yearâ€™s 12-4 team.