CUMBERLAND — Cumberland American Little League All-Star coach Dave Belisle has been this route before.
When his team, the recent District IV champions, takes to the field Saturday night for its opening-round game in the state tournament, it will be the second time that Belisle has made the trip.
Four years ago when his son Brian was on the squad, he was the coach when CALL also competed at the states after copping the district title with an exciting win over a very-talent Smithfield team in the finals.
The results at that state tournament weren’t exactly favorable in the double-elimination tourney as Cumberland American endured a quick exit, losing two straight to Cranston Western and Barrington.
“One of the reason we lost is we had such a difficult time in the districts,” recalled Belisle, whose younger son, James, is a member of the 2011 team. “We beat Smithfield [during pool play] and we beat them in the finals in an incredible game and the kids were just happy beating Smithfield twice [that summer]. It took something out of us. I think in their minds winning the states was just gravy.”
Belisle admits he learned a lot from that experience and it’s knowledge he and his coaching staff will build on at this year’s state tournament, thanks in part to the incredulous run last year by his team’s counterpart, Cumberland National. That was a squad that captured the district and state titles last summer and was one win away from making a trip to the Little League World Series with a impressive run at the New England Regionals in Bristol, Conn.
“There’s no gravy,” Belisle said on Thursday afternoon. “I think National taught us that. I think that the kids want more. I think they have a better frame of mind after seeing what National did.”
Cumberland American begins action at 7 p.m. on Saturday against consistent-power Portsmouth at the Warwick West Side Complex. Belisle will be bringing a team that has similar traits to Cumberland National.
“It’s tough to compare looking from the outside as a coach. They’re a tough team to duplicate,” he said. “They were a very strong team from top to bottom. But that’s pretty much like our team. We don’t have a weak link. I think our top four or five hitters were comparable. I think we are a comparable team. But it’s all about making plays under pressure. I think my team can do that.”
By what it did during pool play and particularly in the postseason, Cumberland American proved it can perform under pressure. After dominating teams through its four games in Pool B where it posted a 4-0 record and outscored its opponents by a 37-7 margin, CALL showed it can win the close ones by defeating Smithfield, 3-1, in the semifinals and then bringing out its lumber in the finals, where it rallied from an early 5-1 deficit to beat previously-unbeaten Lincoln, 12-6, this past Friday.
The four teams in the state tournament this year are Cranston Western (District I), Portsmouth (District II), Central Coventry (District III) and Cumberland American. CALL will be facing a Portsmouth squad that has captured its last three district championships and seven the last decade. Cranston Western is also a frequent representative of its district with five crowns since 2001.
“They are two big names in the state,” Belisle said. “They are always at the top of the heap in Little League baseball. I am sure that [Portsmouth] is very good. There is going to be some very difficult games, but I think we’ll be ready.”
Belisle is unsure who he’ll send to the mound on Saturday, but he has limited his decision to two ace hurlers in Connor Mastin and Max Hanuschak. Both pitchers have been nothing short of outstanding this summer.
“We’ll make our decision on Friday,” Belisle said. “Both played extremely well during the season. I am extremely confident either can do the job. Either choice will be a good choice.” With all the runs it has produced so far, it’s evident that Cumberland American also has the talent inside the batter’s box.
“It’s been a team effort,” Belisle said. “We have kids that can pop home runs or get the opposing pitchers to up their pitch counts and that helps.”
CALL showed that aspect in the district finals when it forced Lincoln to go to its relief core early by having ace Connor Sheehan leave the game with a few innings left after he reached the 85-pitch limit.
Cumberland American also got some good news early this week when it learned one of its top players from last year’s team that won the state title for 11-year-olds, Chris Wright, is back in the lineup. Wright, who was one of the leading hitters and pitchers from that 2010 squad, also coached by Belisle, fractured his ankle during the second day of practice in mid-June.
“We’ll probably have him at first base, but he’s another big stick,” he said. “He won’t be able to pitch in the states, but he could be ready if we make it [to the regionals]. He’s quite a ballplayer. We are very happy he’ll be there on Saturday.”