“I thought hockey was tough.”
BRISTOL, Ct. — Dave Belisle, who along with his dad Bill Belisle, was part of 26 state titles won by the Mount St. Charles Academy hockey team the last four decades, couldn’t help but make that analogy on Thursday night. Those five words were the first to come out of his mouth after the Cumberland American manager watched his squad hold on for an 8-7 semifinal win over Fairfield American in the New England Championship of the Eastern Regional Tournament.
CALL’s nail-biting victory, where it held off a late six-run rally by the Connecticut state champions in the final two innings to eke out the decision, earned it a ticket to the finals on Saturday. The local youths will battle Andover (Mass.) National at 1 p.m. at Breen Field with a date at next week’s Little League World Series awarded to the winner.
After a total of just 13 hits and 10 runs in its first four games of the tournament, including its 5-3 win over Andover in its opener last Saturday, Cumberland American has boosted up its offense leading up to the finals this weekend with 20 hits and 20 runs the past two games. That, alone, has Belisle confident his young squad will be prepared to battle the Massachusetts’s champs.
“I think they are very confident,” he said. “They know that they got a shot. I think the confidence level is higher than it’s ever been. I think it’s just as high as when we won [the] Rhode Island [state title]. They are just excited to live for another day, one game to play for Williamsport is enough said. We’ll be ready to play…”
In Thursday’s affair, the game that enabled CALL to continue the same journey of its previous two predecessors, Lincoln (2009) and Cumberland National (2010), Belisle never felt that the game was over until the final out, despite an 8-1 lead with just two innings left. As it turned out, he was right as Fairfield American staged a dramatic, late-inning rally with six runs in those innings and the tying run on third base before the final out.
“Every inning that we scored I said we need more,” Belisle said. “Even in the top of the sixth, I said we need more. I knew they were batting over .400. I knew what they were capable of doing.”
There were several highlights in the semifinal tilt. Starter Max Hanuschak had some difficulty finding the strike zone with 39 strikes in his 86-pitch afternoon. He had seven walks and two hit batsmen, but he still stayed composed in the pressure-filled, NESN-televised playoff game, something that’s hard to do for adults, never mind a 12-year-old kid.
The second inning particularly sticks out for the young right-hander. Hanuschak was wild in the inning, hitting a batter and also offering three free passes. But with his team already leading by a score of 3-0, he was able to escape with minimal damage. Fairfield scored once in the inning on a run-scoring walk by Jack Oricoli.
But after two straight walks, including Oricoli’s freebie, Hanuschak was able to leave the bases-loaded by striking out Brendan Layne for the third out.
“Max pitched so well and gave us the confidence to relax and hit the ball,” Belisle admitted. “He was in control. He hit a couple of batters. It’s a tough game for these young boys on the mound, but Max battled today. He did a great job.”
“I felt pretty good,” Hanuschak added. “My arm felt good. My curveball was on. I felt pretty good. I had a tough inning in the second, but I got out of it.”
Cumberland American also had two home runs from Jake Glod and Chris Wright, and a pair of doubles from Ryan McCormick and Hanuschak in the game. Defensively, CALL had two errors (seven total in its five games so far) against Fairfield. It had several web gems on Thursday from Glod. He had a spectacular stop on a hard grounder by Aiden Kudzy in the fourth inning that he threw to Wright at first. Wright made a nice scoop from the dirt to get the out. Glod then ended the inning with a leaping catch on a soft-liner by Layne. In the third inning, Glod stopped a potential hit by Brendan Flynn and rifled the ball over to Wright at first, who completed the play with a nice stretch to retrieve it.
Cumberland American will now try and go one step further than Lincoln and Cumberland National, who both absorbed heartbreaking losses in their respective championship games. Of course a win over Andover on Saturday will send the 13 players on this year’s roster to Williamsport.
Belisle has indicated he has a trio of arms ready for the matchup, all three who have been instrumental in CALL’s success this summer.
“We got Connor Mastin, we got Jakey (Jake Glod) and we got Connor Lavallee,” he said. “You’ll probably see all three.”
The expectations this weekend are to bring home the New England title.
“We are playing champions,” Belisle said. “I expect to win and the team that we are going to play expects to win. You saw the game today. These are champions. Semifinals or finals, you are going to see battles. There is no time clock. I told the kids that [Thursday]. There is no time clock in baseball. Unlike hockey, there is no time clock in baseball. You have to play every out. I wish I didn’t say that. It gave me a heart attack, but they played every out [Thursday]. If we didn’t, we would have lost the game.”