WOONSOCKET — Navigant Post 85 co-coaches Buster Perrault and Jim Gauthier had been set to retire last year from the everyday grind of not only mentoring their players, but making sure they all (or as many as possible) could attend necessary practice sessions and contests.
Another chore: Rounding up enough sponsors to pitch in – ponder the pun – and make sure they had enough funds to uniform the entire roster, purchase baseballs and necessary equipment, etc.
But then the squad stunned them – not to mention the state's American Legion Senior Division followers – by claiming the Rhode Island crown.
The contingent had been the eighth and final seed in the tournament, but battled its way back from the losers' bracket to clinch a berth in the Northeast Regionals in Old Orchard Beach, Me.
“We were ready to say 'So long,' but then we got a couple of phone calls from families of players,” Gauthier stated. “They asked us, 'Will you please come back?'”
With a laugh, he continued, “Yeah, they guilted us into it, but we're sure glad they did! Just look at this team.”
Last Saturday afternoon, Post 85 completed an outstanding state-wide campaign with a stellar, come-from-behind 11-4 victory over Gershkoff/Auburn Post 20 of Cranston in the state championship game at McCarthy Field in West Warwick. With the verdict, it sealed a second consecutive bid to the U.S. American Legion Northeast Regional tourney, this time slated for Middletown, Conn.
The Woonsocket-based team, which will take a 20-7 overall record into its opener against Worcester, Mass. at Palmer Field at 9:30 p.m., Thursday, will look to improve its 1-2 showing last summer – and then some.
The skippers conducted a final preparatory meeting/batting practice at their Renaud Field home Tuesday afternoon, and – while watching intently – explained their expectations for this most special group.
“I'm absolutely not surprised by the way this team played,” noted Perrault, who since 1978 has managed the Woonsocket club under several different coaches, in the process earning four state crowns, the first back in 1981.
“It feels great to be going back, with a chance to move on to the World Series (scheduled for later this month in Shelby, N.C.),” he added. “I thought, with all of these guys coming back (12 of the 13 roster players returned), we had an excellent chance of winning another state championship. In fact, Jimmy and I would've been very disappointed if we hadn't, given the collective experience.
“They keys this year, our pitching has been solid, but the hitting has been fantastic,” he added. “The big thing has been our discipline at the plate, because that's what we focused on all season. If somebody was pulling their head out, or dropping their shoulder, swinging at a bad pitch or the strive was screwed up, we'd tell them, 'Quit it! You're doing it wrong.'
“The kids were just more disciplined. We'd say, 'Look for your pitch and hit it! It's that simple. If it's outside, go with it. If it's inside, pull it like you know you can.' The biggest surprise, I'd say, was our defense. It's been much better than I thought it would be.
“Last year, we made a ton of errors; we did not look good in the field, so we did more infield and outfield work, working on situations. I know Jimmy hit them a lot of balls, and the guys were probably pretty irritated at the amount of time we spent. We had a lot of repetitions, but it only made them better.”
As for the current task at hand, the mentors know little about the field at the regional event, except that Navigant will return the most experienced squad.
“The only team that made it back to regionals was Barnstable (Mass.), and it's got only four coming back,” he said. “We have 12, the only (newcomer) Jon Almeida (a recent North Smithfield High graduate). I will say I'd be disappointed if we didn't qualify to go to North Carolina, and it's basically because I think we're that good.
“We've got the hitting, we've got the pitching and we're playing pretty good defense,” he added. “Last year, in our first game against (another Maine qualifier), we made four errors in the first inning and we kind of played our way out of it. Still, we only lost, 4-2. We won our second game, but then lost to Barnstable, 3-1.
“I honestly believe this team can go as far as it wants to. I know they're hungry enough.”
One of a more than a few mound mainstays this summer has been Kory Lawrence, a 2012 Woonsocket High graduate now entering his second season with the Community College of Rhode Island. He thinks his “brothers” can move further into the regional tourney than it did 12 months ago.
“Immediately after we lost last season, I asked everyone if they were going to come back,” he offered. “We were still in our motel in Old Orchard Beach, and I wanted to know. We were pretty much an underdog; we weren't expected to win states, but then we beat New England Frozen Lemonade (of Warwick) in the opener, and kept our feet on the gas.
“Some people were on the fence, but the overall consensus? I'd say 90 percent of the guys said they wanted to, 'Yeah, we're coming back.' That was what started this year's run … This is cool, this is awesome. There's just something about this team. The chemistry is off the charts. We all get along.
“No matter where we played high school – North Smithfield, Mount, Woonsocket, Cumberland – it didn't matter. Everyone just bonded. We've definitely had our ups and downs; last summer, we were so inconsistent. We'd go from being '10-runned' to winning by 15-16.'
“This year, we're on cue with everything. We're looking a lot more like a complete team, and it's because we're more consistent (in all phases).”
The statistics convey that. Post 85 had five players with batting averages over .325, while the team hovered around .323. Lawrence led the pitching staff with a 7-1 mark (7-0 as a starter) and a sub-2.00 ERA, while fellow righthander E.J. Torres finished 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA.
Brandon Rainville closed with a 4-2 mark and 2.84 ERA.
“If we bring and play our 'A' game, there's no reason we can't continue this streak,” Gauthier mentioned. “It all has to do with the kids' collective attitude. They got a taste of it last year, and they felt they wouldn't be satisfied unless they reached the next level (this time).
“We as coaches were afraid we were going to let down at states because the guys were looking ahead to the regionals,” he continued. “We kept telling them, 'You've got to win the (Rhode Island) championship before you take the next step.' I think they realized and accepted what we told them.
“Our attitude, or philosophy, entering this tournament is this: The other teams should be just as fearful of us. We've won two consecutive state titles, and (do) you know how hard that is to do, especially in this day and age? It's virtually impossible, so that's got to make you feel good about your chances.
“We did it with our bats and our pitching, not to mention some good defense. If we play every (regional) game like we're capable, there's no reason we can't go far. Focus has never been a problem. There were no distractions; that's another thing I like about these kids. When we lost, they took it personally; they got upset with themselves. They knew what they did wrong, then set out to fix the areas that cost them.”
Navigant – with quin-captains Torres, first baseman Andreas Brackett, multi-talented Rainville, Lawrence and bulldog third baseman Tyler Geffert leading the way – will leave the Park Square parking lot (in front of Stop & Shop near Barry Field) by charter bus at 10:30 p.m. today.
All but Torres plays collegiate ball, as sophomore-to-be Brackett competes for Rhode Island College; Rainville will be a freshman at Johnson & Wales; and Geffert is readying himself for his sophomore fall season at American International in Springfield.
“I've won two states titles with Mount St. Charles, and two state championships here,” stated Geffert, who makes the trek virtually every day to Renaud Field or opposing game sites from Hopedale, Mass. (near Milford). “These (crowns) are more important to me now because I'm out of high school.
“I'm not surprised by our success; it's a major reason why I chose not to play in a collegiate league this summer. We wanted to win another (state) title for our coaches,” he added. “We knew they were going to retire, but they didn't, and we were all psyched about that. It was a tough decision, as our (college) coaches wanted us to play at the highest level, but they also understood.
“Our captains made a pact that we'd come back for another season, and we're glad we did. This team is a lot of fun to be around, and we're all competitors.”
Mentioned Gauthier: “If we do win this (regional), it'll be a nice way to go out. We're definitely retiring after this season, though I'm sure we'll still be involved in some way.”