It’s a special time for the players of the Cumberland American Little League All-Star team. The squad, which is mostly comprised of 12-year-old youths, stormed through the District IV Major Division Tournament and after two dominating victories at the state level stands just a win away from representing Rhode Island at the Eastern Regionals in Bristol, Conn., next week.
Although it’s not the same type of script, it’s somewhat similar to the one that’s been used by the last two district and state titlists, Lincoln and Cumberland National; two local squads that traveled down to Bristol and nearly earned their ticket to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series, coming just a single win short at the regionals.
Cumberland American will try to duplicate the feats of its predecessors as early as tonight at the Warwick West Side complex when it takes on the winner of Tuesday night’s Cranston Western-Central Coventry elimination tilt in the championships finals.
What is it that makes a quality team like Cumberland American, one that’s worthy to play with some of the best of its peers?
Two reputable authorities on the subject, Charlie Hien and Dale O’Dell, believe there are a few factors that figure into the equation. Hein was part of a Lincoln dynasty with his late father Randy Hien and the late Lou Abraham that claimed six state titles and had two World Series appearances from 1999-2006. O’Dell, a former college and high school coach, managed the 2009 Lincoln team.
“It’s about coaching, dedication from the kids, some great parents and a great league,” Hien said. “There’s a system in place and the kids following through with it. It’s about the kids believing in their coaches and the coaches believing in the kids.”
O’Dell had a similar response to his good friend, who he had the chance to work with as an assistant coach when his son, Ryan, pitched for the 2006 team that won a state crown.
“For Lincoln, it was a lot of parent involvement,” O’Dell said. “The kids played AAU. They did a lot of the extra things, besides AAU. I think that’s part of it and you also can’t underestimate the coaching. I think Cumberland National, they had a great team. They were good when they were younger and had the same coaches (John Brodeur, Rocky Baldelli, Mike Calabro) and the same parent group when they were young. That’s what happened to Lincoln. A lot had to do with the foundation, starting with the product – the coaching staff and parents.”
Cumberland American is coached by Dave Belisle. It’s the same Dave Belisle, who along with his father, Bill Belisle, has coached the Mount St. Charles’ hockey team to numerous state titles over the years. Even though hockey is his expertise, O’Dell says that what has made Belisle successful over the years at Mount is also something that works on the baseball diamond.
Most of the players on this year’s Cumberland American team also won the state title for 11-year-olds in 2010, also under Belisle and his crew.
“Everyone knows Dave is a hockey coach,” O’Dell said. “But a good coach can pretty much coach anything. There’s a lot of organization and getting kids to work hard.”
During its recent run this summer, Cumberland American dominated its competition, posting a 6-0 record in district play while outscoring its rivals by a substantial 52-8 margin. CALL has remained unbeaten at the state tournament, defeating Portsmouth, 13-3, and Cranston Western, 15-0, with a pair of mercy-rule decisions.
Although the latest Cumberland squad is making it look easy so far, performing at a high level is by no means an easy thing to do. It's something that CALL has done with not only its offense and its defense, but what’s between its ears.
Cumberland American is a team that O’Dell and Hien feel has benefitted from the mental aspect of baseball and the belief that each time it walks on the field, it is the best team out there.
That was something that the two former coaches felt were their squads’ greatest traits.
In 2009, O’Dell’s Lincoln team had a few close calls during the districts and then came back from a loss to Johnston National in the second game of the double-elimination state tourney to eventually win it all with two straight victories over Johnston in the championship finals.
“I think the key is to have the mentality,” O’Dell said. “I think the advantage [in 2009] is we had a lot of close games, a lot of do-or-die games…Every game we played, we looked at it like it was our last game. That was our style, to leave it all on the field. We left it all out there.”
“It’s all in the power of the mind,” Hien said. “Once they think they can win, the sky’s the limit.”
Under the Hiens and Abraham, Lincoln built a powerhouse in the state ranks. Charlie Hien stated that commitment to the team, both coaches and players, was a big reason Lincoln was so successful.
“It takes a little bit of luck [to win],” he said, “and a lot of dedication.”
From 2000-2009, Lincoln and Cranston Western were the dominant teams in the state. Lincoln won six state titles and Cranston copped three. It didn’t come by accident, says O’Dell.
“The reason Lincoln and Cranston Western did so well is they were working harder than everyone else, and Cumberland has done that recently,” he noted, while also making reference to Lincoln’s steady regime of two-a-day practices over the last decade. “I think that makes a huge difference.”
Consistency in what is being taught to the kids is another factor that Hien deems instrumental.
“With Randy and I, every year we had a practice regime,” he said. “In the morning, it was all defense. There were no bats. The kids’ arms were fresh. We never veered away from that. In the evening, the kids would not touch a ball. The kids would just swing the bats. They would each have close to 200 swings.”
Both Hien and O’Dell agree that Cumberland American is a strong team, particularly inside the batter’s box. To advance to the regionals and prosper down in Bristol, those bats will need to continue to produce some power.
But the two former coaches say its defense, and particularly pitching, that will have to be at its best to make things happen.
“You got to have three horses,” O’Dell said. “In the old days, you could go 1 ½. With the [mandatory] pitch count at 85, you basically have to have a 1 and 1A and another kid that is just as good.”
During his time with Lincoln, the Hiens and Abraham relied on their defense to win games.
“In a lot of games we won, 1-0, 2-1,” Charlie Hien said. “In 14 years, we never once allowed more than seven runs a game. It was all about defense. It’s a different style now than when we won. We were defense-minded. Hitting was not our forte.”
Cumberland American will try and make the local trifecta this week with a state title and a trip to Bristol for the Eastern Regionals. Will it match what the past two teams have done down there and the Lincoln teams of the past or could it go further like Lincoln did it 2001 and 2004 when it captured the New England title at the regionals and had the chance to play in Williamsport? Time will only tell.
Some words of advice from O’Dell and Hien: cherish the moment.
“Try to enjoy it,” O’Dell said. “It’s a special time that the kids won’t forget…It’s one of the purest times in baseball. It’s not the same in high school and college. In Little League baseball, you are simply playing the game because you love it. It’s something you will never forget.”
“To the kids, enjoy every moment,” Hien said. “To the coaches, make the kids believe that you are the best team on the field. With the power of the mind, the kids can do something special.”