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The Cumberland American team that waltzed its way to Bristol, Conn., had gone missing in action.
Sure, the pitching and defense were still present, but the merciless offensive attack that became the theme of Cumberlandâ€™s state title run was nowhere to be found. The Rhode Island champions dropped two of their first three pool-play games in the New England regional tournament, standing perilously close to the end of a memorable summer.
But just when manager Dave Belisleâ€™s club needed them most, Cumberlandâ€™s bats awoke from their ill-timed slumber. The rest, as they say, is history.
The result is a berth in the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., where Cumberland will open play on Friday at 3 p.m. against West region representative Ocean View of Huntington Beach, Calif., a game that will be played at the renowned Howard J. Lamade Stadium and televised live on ESPN.
Following Cumberlandâ€™s 13-7 triumph over Massachusetts champion Andover National in Saturdayâ€™s regional final at Breen Field, Belisle was asked why his team â€“ and not the countless others across New England â€“ had earned the right to play on Little Leagueâ€™s grandest stage.
â€śI think weâ€™re going to Williamsport because of the hard work and dedication that the boys put in,â€ť he said, noting that Cumberland typically practices 2 1/2 hours per day and has taken two days off since June. â€śTheyâ€™re focused, they work hard, we worked them hard, and we donâ€™t slight any one of these boys. Every one of these boys is a very important part of this team.â€ť
Add this to the list: Cumberland is going to the Little League World Series because of its ability to rise to the occasion.
Cumberlandâ€™s 9-0 record and 11.3 runs-per-game average against Rhode Island foes in the District IV and state tournaments proved that it belonged in Bristol. Its first three games there, however, suggested otherwise.
Belisleâ€™s squad averaged 1.7 runs and three hits through three pool-play contests, getting shut out in back-to-back contests by New Hampshireâ€™s Goffstown Junior Baseball and Connecticutâ€™s Fairfield American.
â€śWe came up here and really laid some eggs as far as with the bats,â€ť Belisle said. â€śWeâ€™re a hitting team. We know that with the kids that we have up and down the lineup, weâ€™re going to put some runs up. And when we donâ€™t, weâ€™re in trouble.â€ť
With a 1-2 record heading into last Wednesdayâ€™s pool-play finale against Vermontâ€™s Barre Community, Cumberland was essentially staring at a must-win game for it to reach the semifinal round.
It answered the call with a 12-4 drubbing in which it totaled 13 hits. As it turned out, a weight had been lifted. Cumberland was back.
Last Thursdayâ€™s pulsating 8-7 win against Fairfield American, the same league that doused Cumberland Nationalâ€™s Little League World Series bid in last yearâ€™s New England final, punched Cumberland Americanâ€™s ticket to this yearâ€™s championship game.
Standing in its path was Andover National, which limited Cumberland to three hits in the squadsâ€™ pool-play opener one week prior. Cumberland capitalized on four Andover errors to claim a 5-3 victory that afternoon, but Saturdayâ€™s game was quite different.
Reminiscent of its performance against Lincoln in the District IV final, Cumberland responded to an early 3-0 deficit by torching Andover pitching for five home runs â€“ three in the first inning, and two of them from leadoff hitter Ryan McCormick.
Andover never saw it coming.
â€śI donâ€™t think you ever anticipate a club hitting five home runs against you â€“ three in the first inning,â€ť Andover manager Paul Finn said. â€śI mean, thatâ€™s just beyond belief. They hit the ball great today. Their bats were on.â€ť
Theyâ€™ll need to be on again later this week, when Cumberland takes yet another step up the competition ladder. But this time, it wonâ€™t have the luxury of four pool-play games to summon its offense.
The Little League World Seriesâ€™ double-elimination format should determine rather quickly if Cumberland has what it takes to play with the nationâ€™s elite.
â€śI think weâ€™ve adjusted to all the levels of play,â€ť Belisle said. â€śObviously the competitionâ€™s going to get better when we get to Williamsport, but I really believe that we can adjust to it. Itâ€™s just that weâ€™re going to have to adjust to it right away. Weâ€™re going to see a big jump again, but they can handle it. They really can. You canâ€™t throw a fastball by these guys. Itâ€™s tough.â€ť
If history is any indication, Cumberland could face an uphill battle in South Williamsport.
The previous five Rhode Island teams that qualified for the Little League World Series went a combined 4-11. The most successful of that bunch was Cranston Westernâ€™s 1996 club, which claimed the United States title before falling to Chinese Taipei in the world championship game.
What Cumberland does have on its side is a track record of winning. This same group of players won last summerâ€™s 11-year-old state title, a team also managed by Belisle.
â€śTo have the success that theyâ€™ve had, I think that in itself brings a lot of confidence,â€ť Belisle said.
Each of the past two years, Belisle has presented a figurine of Saint Joseph to his team. And while the statuetteâ€™s presence has coincided with plenty of victories, Belisle said thatâ€™s not its purpose.
â€śItâ€™s something that provides protection,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s been a winning formula for us, but it has nothing to do with winning. It gives us strength, and thatâ€™s what it provided for the boys. Itâ€™s a lucky charm, but itâ€™s a blessed lucky charm.â€ť
Perhaps the third time was the charm for a Rhode Island team to return to the Little League World Series. Lincolnâ€™s 2009 squad and last summerâ€™s Cumberland National club both reached the New England title game, only to have their dreams dashed in heartbreaking fashion.
Belisle insists those teams werenâ€™t on his playersâ€™ minds.
â€śIt was never mentioned,â€ť he said. â€śIt was all about us and what we were destined to do. I just think that this team is special. Those other two teams were to, but we didnâ€™t think about that. Our focus was game by game, and [Saturday] was about focusing on this game, not Williamsport.â€ť
As someone who has enjoyed his fair share of championships as a coach of the Mount Saint Charles Academy boys hockey team, Belisle recognizes that this title is unique.
â€śItâ€™s right up there with every hockey championship Iâ€™ve won,â€ť he said. â€śThis is 12-year-old boys performing at a level of competition that I canâ€™t even see teenagers doing, with the media and the pressure.
â€śIâ€™m just as proud of this team as any team Iâ€™ve ever coached.â€ť
That pride will endure regardless of how Cumberland performs in the Little League World Series, because Belisleâ€™s primary objective is not winning. He summarized the expectation for his players in two words: â€śHave fun.â€ť
â€śWe deserve to be there,â€ť Belisle said. â€śWhen we have fun, we play pretty decent baseball. Whatever happens happens, but weâ€™re going to compete. Weâ€™re going to make Rhode Island proud.â€ť