WOONSOCKET — Less than 48 hours after stunning the McCarthy Field crowds by earning the R.I. American Legion Baseball Tournament championship as the eighth seed, Navigant Post 85 co-coaches Buster Perrault and Jim Gauthier chose to conduct a low-key, elective practice at Renaud Field on Tuesday afternoon.
The skippers did so to ready their troops for the Northeast Regional American Legion Tournament, a double-elimination event slated to begin Thursday at The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach, Me.
Gauthier admitted the idea of capturing the title – gleaned Sunday with back-to-back 6-4 and 9-4 victories over favored Senerchia Post 74 in West Warwick – finally had set in, but they had plenty of work left.
“You know, it’s surprising, but not unexpected; we always had a lot of confidence in this team,” he stated. “I think the guys’ collective mindset all changed in mid-July. We had hosted Upper Deck (Post 86/14 of Cumberland) here, and beaten them, 3-2, then we had a doubleheader with them the next day.
“We lost two straight (at Lincoln’s Chet Nichols Memorial Field), and it was easily the sloppiest baseball Buster and I had ever seen,” he added. “We laid into them afterward. We told them, ‘We’ve dedicated our summer to you guys, and we expect you to do the same. We’re spending this time with you, not our wives and families, and we expect 110-percent effort. You guys are better than this.’
“Ever since then, they came ready to play, they had better attitudes. We told them they had to play to win, and – if they didn’t – they’d sit on the bench. We said that we have other guys who want to play, and would bust their butts to get in there, so we’d play them. They’d ride the pine.”
This contingent – made up of predominantly of Woonsocket and Smithfield high school and Mount St. Charles players – snared the first Legion crown for this old mill town since 1989.
That’s when then-Fairmount Post 85, mentored by Perrault, went to Chicopee, Ma. and defeated both the Massachusetts (Braintree) and Connecticut (Hamden) state champs.
“For some odd reason, officials told us we had to play Connecticut again, and I still don’t know why; we had beaten them, 7-0, in a preliminary round,” Perrault noted. “They ended up beating us, 4-3, so we came within a game of going to the championship (tilt). How we didn’t get the bye after winning two straight, I still have no idea.
“The biggest similarity between this group and that one is they both love baseball,” he continued. “That’s all they did in ’89, play baseball. From morning to night, if they weren’t competing, they’d be out on the sandlots. They just loved the game.
“These kids, of course, love their Facebook, video games and the beach, and they’re at the age where they’re chasing girls, but they’re here every day. It’s a commitment, and they’ve chosen to abide by that commitment.
“Another thing is those kids did everything together, they hung around together after games and practices; they didn’t just go off individually. This team does the same thing, and I believe they’ve formed a brotherhood. They go out to eat together, they do things together, and that’s what it takes to form a true team.”
Ever since Jon Flynn threw his last pitch on Sunday and Navigant reveled in the post-title ceremony, the coaches have been busy compiling the necessary paperwork to send to tourney officials in Maine, not to mention collecting each boy’s original birth certificate.
R.I. American Legion League Director John Parente had held a meeting in Navigant’s home first-base dugout after the twinbill to inform them such paperwork is required; without it, an individual wouldn’t – and couldn’t – play.
The team will leave via charter bus from the Park Square Plaza lot at 10:30 this morning, and is expected to arrive in Old Orchard Beach at about 2 p.m. Navigant will face the Maine champion at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, and – with a victory – will play the winner of New York-Vermont at the same time on Friday.
Should it be defeated, it would take on the loser of that same contest at 9:30 a.m.
According to Gauthier, those in charge of American Legion Baseball will pay for everything, including hotel, travel, etc. As for food, each player will receive $18 a day, but neither coach is complaining.
“The guys are anxious to get out there,” explained Gauthier, whose team snatched six of seven playoff games after ending the regular season a mediocre 11-11. “You can just tell. We’re not going to do any throwing (Tuesday) because we want to rest our arms. We’re setting up our pitching rotation right now, and we want everyone to rest.
“We played a lot of baseball last week – seven games in seven days, including the doubleheader Sunday – so the kids are tired. We want to give them a break, get them rejuvenated.
“You know what’s been nice about this? We’ve had at least eight past (Legion) players come out and talk to the kids,” he added. “They told them, ‘Don’t waste this opportunity. We wish we were in your shoes, but we took it for granted. We would love to play for the right to go to the Legion World Series (in North Carolina).
“Among those kids were Melvin Torres, Justin Rainville and Derek Mayer. Before the state tournament, they came out and threw BP, then came back (Monday) night for the pep talk.”
When asked if he knew anything about their initial foe – a club from Portland, Me. – Gauthier indicated a parent had gone on-line and discovered the Mainers were similar to Senerchia, comprised predominantly of Bishop Hendricken players.
The reason: Most players competed for Cheverus High, a Portland private school, and it closed the season at 16-7.
Unlike Senerchia, the Maine champs are graced with numerous 2011 and ’12 high school graduates.
Among the standouts: catcher Nic Lops, described as a patient hitter and free swinger; righthander Louie DiStasio, who has thrown his fastball 86 mph and has a fast-paced slider; and left fielder Peter Potthoff, a power/pull hitter.
“Most teams have a Web site, so we’re going to check out the ones we could face,” Gauthier said. “We want to see who the top hitters and pitchers are.”
With a mischievous grin, he added, “They won’t get that from us. We don’t have a Web site, not with the busy schedule we’ve had this summer.
“Seriously, our goal is to go up there, act like a really classy team and whatever happens, happens,” Gauthier mentioned. “We’re going to let the chips fall where they may. We want to play the epitome of disciplined baseball.”
If Gauthier and Perrault have any concerns, they include the amount of walks their pitching staff has compiled, as well as the number of errors.
“We’ve walked 162 batters in 226 innings, and that’s not good; we’ve also hit 13,” Gauthier noted. “We’ve also given up – in 33 games this year (their record is 19-14) --
109 runs, but only 56 were earned.
“We have to cut the walks, and we’ve got to stop committing so many errors. That means we’ve yielded 53 unearned runs. What does that tell you? We’ve got to be more consistent with our gloves. If not, we’ll be home Friday night.
“If you give a team four or five outs an inning, you know it’s going to come back to haunt you, especially when that team is us,” he continued. “We don’t have to play perfect, no one does, but we do have to keep the mistakes to a bare minimum.”
Since Navigant won the state crown, calls from former players and well-wishers have flooded the coaches’ cell and home phones. One in particular came on Tuesday morning, when Pat McBride phoned Perrault.
“I didn’t talk to him, but my wife, Barbara, did, and it doesn’t surprise me,” Perrault laughed. “Pat played for me in the early ‘90s, and he was always a great kid, very polite. He asked Barbara if he could do anything for us, like take the team out to eat or something.
“He lives in Vermont and said he would be at one of the first two games, so I know we’ll see him; that’s just the kind of guy he is,” he added. “What’s great about this is we’ve heard from a lot of the old kids who played. Especially in a city like Woonsocket, a lot of people for years now have followed our Legion team. They genuinely care about how we do, whether we win or lose.”
One of them is State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt, whose husband, Ed Hunt, used to coach the Lincoln High squad, and whose son, Victor, plays for Navigant. She promised to devote her raise as a member of the General Assembly to a charity, and informed Perrault on Tuesday she wanted to purchase new maroon tops for the team.
“We’ve been wearing the white ones all season, and they’ve gotten pretty dirty; we do have the vests to go with them, but it’s been too hot for them to wear,” Perrault chuckled. “We were elated when we heard the news. On one of the sleeves (of each jersey), we’re going to have sewn on, ‘Rhode Island State Champs.’
“If we don’t have them for our first game, we certainly will for our second. The kids names will also appear on the back, which is great. I think Lisa will bring them up herself.”
Perrault admitted he wasn’t shocked by his club’s return – after 23 years – to the regional, but also didn’t really expect it.
“I always thought we had a pretty good team,” he said. “Naturally, I wasn’t sure if we’d go out and win it, but I always thought we were good enough to go to the Final Four. To win in the fashion we did, as the eighth seed, it’s really a tribute to the kids. This is something they wanted. They went out and actually achieved it. I’m proud of them.
“Still, we’re going up there to do the best we possibly can. We’re hoping we can pull off something special, something these kids will remember forever.”