LINCOLN — On Tuesday afternoon, Lincoln All-Stars’ manager Matt Netto still didn’t know which opponent his team would face in the opening round of the upcoming state Little League Major Division (11-12) Tournament.
Because Cranston Western upset winners’ bracket titleist Johnston, 11-6, Monday night, those two District I representatives faced off in a winner-take-all championship game on Wednesday night at Cranston Western’s home site.
In that game, Cranston Western posted an 8-4 victory, sewing up the team’s third straight district title and earning a spot opposite Lincoln in the state tourney opener at the same Cranston diamond at 2 p.m., Saturday.
With Sunday night’s 13-2 trouncing of Cumberland American, Netto’s contingent snatched its first District IV title since 2009, and it did so with outstanding pitching, defense and hitting.
If there’s one category, however, that’s particularly impressive about Lincoln’s 13 players, it’s the offense. It doesn’t matter who’s at the plate, each and every one of them swing with authority. Against CALL, they rapped 15 hits, six of them for extra bases, and virtually all of them were on a line.
“These kids have been hitting well since they were eight years old; that’s how long most of them have been together,” noted assistant Gordon Zaniol. “Every single day during the season, we’re hitting. Occasionally, they’d get a Sunday off, but even if it rained, we’d go inside and hit.
“Our ability at the plate showed when we won the 11-year-old Major Division district championship last summer,” he added. “We ended up only one out away from going to the state (11s) championship game. All of their hard work over the past four years is continuing to pay off. You’re seeing that with our hitting.”
Massive first baseman Steve Andrews, who stands at six feet and 195 pounds as a 12-year-old, crushed his fifth homer of the season in the triumph over CALL on Sunday night. In the tilt before, he actually hit the top of Lonsdale Elementary School from home plate at nearby Randy Hien Field.
Others also have power, including Kyle Marrapese, Connor Benbenek and Blake Zaniol, to name just a few.
“People may look at us as a great hitting team, but we’re also very smart defensively,” the elder Zaniol indicated. “I think our hitting at times overshadows that; we are solid with the bats, but that’s because every one of these kids plays with the Blackstone Valley Spinners (an AAU program for all ages). They’ll play 50-60 games a year with us and for the AAU team.
“I still say it’s all about baseball IQ; they play smart baseball,” he added. “They know what to do on the field and when, what to do in certain situations. That’s key for us.”
There’s another thing that impresses both the public and those who know the players best – parents and friends – and that’s their discipline.
“When Matt came in for our very first meeting of the season, he told the kids that we’re a family, and that we always need to have each others’ backs,” fellow assistant Marty Gaughan noted. “He said that no matter what, no one will say anything bad about anyone else, and that goes not only for the guys but also their parents, brothers, sisters, friends, etc.
“‘If someone says anything negative about one of your family members, you tell them to stop, you don’t want to hear it; that’s what you say, right?’” he continued. “It’s the same way with this family.”
Netto immediately piped up, ‘There were some blank stares looking back at me when I told the kids they had to tell their parents and family members not to say anything bad about the team, or a player. But that’s what I wanted. They needed to know that’s one of our family rules.
“The same thing goes for the coaches. If someone says something bad about us, you defend us, tell him or her to stop. It’s all because a positive atmosphere can’t happen without the philosophy.
“We actually sent out an e-mail (Monday) morning telling parents that we appreciate all of their support, but we would discontinue entertaining any complaints about playing time. The kids have bought into our plan for this team, and that is – to succeed – we have to move forward.
“If you let a kid be a kid, he’s going to have fun no matter what happens, but it’s the ride home (especially after a loss) that can do damage; what a kid hears away from the playing field can determine his outlook. My point of view is simple: Look at where I’m sitting.”
He referred to his occupation as a fundraiser for Hasbro Children’s Hospital.
“I see sick kids every day,” he noted. “These kids are out playing baseball and having fun, so it’s not life-threatening, not like I see day-in and day-out. How can being involved with a kid’s baseball team be that critical?”
Another motto the club follows stems from the philoslophy put forth by former Lincoln All-Stars mentor, the late and beloved Randy Hien.
“There’s an old saying Randy used to use, and I learned it from him a long time ago,” Gaughan Sr. mentioned. “It’s ‘You’re only as good as your 14th player’ (in Lincoln’s case this year, it’s 13). He used to carry 14 all the time, and he knew how to make each player feel important, like he was a contributor. The kid wouldn’t know the difference between the No. 1 player of the No. 14 kid.
“He kept them pumped up and energized and interested every day, and we’re following the same philosophy.”
Netto and Co. don’t know how they may fare at the state event, but they would love to clinch another state crown and qualify for the New England regional tourney in Bristol, Conn.
“This is going to be a great learning opportunity,” Netto stated. “If they succeed, they’ll learn how to win graciously. If they don’t, they’ll learn how to accept defeat and handle it like a mature young man.
“There’s a lot more to this than just baseball,” he continued. “That’s the beauty of this game. It teaches you more about life than just playing, the game itself. I have no idea where I’d be without this game, and I hope our kids pick up on that.
“We’re just going into it with the motto, ‘One game at a time.’ Every other team is going to be really good, we know that. Whenever we coach these guys, we make sure they know that we can never underestimate anyone. Going back to when they were eight, they’ve learned you’ve got to prepare the same way, know that the opponent is going to come at you with both barrels.”
Stated Coach Zaniol: “We always tell the kids, ‘Just believe in your abilities, and your confidence will move you forward.’”