CUMBERLAND — Not quite a year ago, Bruce Stanford and his son, Jordan, video-recorded the first game of the Cumberland American Little League Major Division All-Stars’ first foray into the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
He did so because he wanted to “do it right.”
Stanford and son had placed a big screen in the backyard of his Arnold Mills neighborhood home, waited for dusk and projected the taped version for family and friends.
“Last year, we followed Cumberland-American to local fields to see them, then watched them on TV once they got to regionals; we were so excited for the team,” the elder Stanford stated. “We knew it was a great opportunity for those kids (coached by Mount St. Charles boys’ hockey mentor Dave Belisle). It was a once in a lifetime experience for them. I told Jordan, ‘Just think, that could be you next year.’”
“Next year” has arrived, and this new group of CALL All-Stars is preparing to achieve what their predecessors had less than 12 months ago. With Belisle coaching the league’s Minor Division 10-year-old contingent, Stanford has taken over the reins, and he believes anything can happen for this particular group – with the proper collective attitude.
CALL will face Scituate-Foster’s best in the initial Pool B tilt of the R.I. District IV Little League Tournament at Aylsworth Park in East Woonsocket at 2 p.m., Saturday. (The opening round, also at Aylsworth, includes Glocester-East Woonsocket at 9 a.m.; North Smithfield-Lincoln at 11:30 a.m.; and Cumberland National-Burrillville at 4 p.m. It should be noted Smithfield and Bernon drew byes, and won’t play until Monday).
“We don’t have one returnee from the team that won the District IV, state and New England championships (the last in Bristol, Conn.),” Stanford noted. “Last year, they had all 12-year-olds, so they’ve graduated. Unfortunately, we’re not bringing anybody back, which would be nice.
“This is a brand new group, but I think we can go places,” he added. “Obviously, it’ll be a difficult task because there are a lot of great teams in our district, and around the state.”
This squad consists of those who were 11 last summer and played for either Major or Minor division regular-season teams, though most were All-Stars. The 11-year-old group lost their first-round playoff game and made an early exit from district competition.
Stanford indicated one reason behind why no one’s coming back is this: Last spring, CALL officials chose to eliminate one of the Major Division teams due to lower-than-expected registration numbers, and that caused some kids to remain on Minor Division contingents.
He nevertheless insisted this team – like last season, all are 12 – is loaded with talent, especially in the pitching department.
He plans on starting righthander Mike DeBlois in the opener against Scituate-Foster, while Ben Brakenwagen will take the ball at 7:30 p.m., Monday, when Cumberland American hosts Burrillville at its Garvin Field home.
(CALL, by the way, is one of five teams in Pool B, the others being CNLL, Scituate-Foster, Bernon and Burrillville; Pool A consists of East Woonsocket, Lincoln, Smithfield, Glocester and North Smithfield).
“Mike has good speed and can locate the ball, while Ben has great velocity and location, and mixes up his pitches well,” Stanford mentioned. “Both those guys played for the Cadden Sports Red Sox, and they won the town championship, so that tells you something.”
Should the need arise, he’ll rely on three others to relieve his top starting tandem. Among them: Jordan Stanford, Lucas Pontbriant and Nick Larson, all righties.
In addition, he loves the talent of his trio of backstops, including Chris Lavalley, Matt Rockefellar and Owen Paine.
“I have three outstanding catchers; they’re all terrific defensively, and they have great bats,” Coach Stanford explained. “I’d say we’re well-rounded at all positions.”
If they’re not on the hill, the younger Stanford will play second base, Larson third and Brakenwagen short while Rockefellar will be at first if not behind the plate. The outfield consists of Pontbriant in right, Paine in center and Drew Szafranski in left.
Key players off the bench include Xavier Rounds (first base/third); Colin Langton (second); and twin brothers Alex and Jake Esposito (left and center, respectively).
“We’re strong and deep with our pitching, and we’ve got speed on the basepaths,” offered Dave Brakenwagen, who’s assisting Stanford on the coaching staff with Ron Pontbriant. “I believe these guys can go as far as their confidence takes them. It’ll all be in their heads. They know how to play, they work hard, they want to win and they communicate.”
When asked how they see this District IV tourney, Brakenwagen the Coach noted “Lincoln is very good, as always, and Smithfield is very disciplined. They don’t make many mistakes, so they don’t beat themselves, which is critical at this level.”
Added Stanford: “No matter which team we face, we have to bring our ‘A’ game if we want to be successful. I think Lincoln and Smithfield will be really good, and I’d throw Burrillville in there as well. It’s all because of their history … I’m not looking past anybody. We’re just going to take it one game at a time. That’s why, for Game 2, the only absolute for the start is Ben (Brakenwagen).”
Due to Little League Baseball Inc. regulations, Stanford and his assistants couldn’t tell the players who made the club until June 15. The very next day, his guys arrived for practice at Garvin.
“We’ve practiced every day since the 16th, and the kids are into it,” Stanford said. “We’re lucky, as we’ve got a lot of great parental support, and the team spirit is phenomenal … I think part of it has to do with what last year’s team did, as I’m sure it’s on their minds, but all of our kids just love baseball.
“You can’t ask for anything more than that.”