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LINCOLN â On Tuesday afternoon, Lincoln All-Starsâ manager Matt Netto still didnât 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 winnersâ 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 Westernâs home site.
In that game, Cranston Western posted an 8-4 victory, sewing up the teamâs 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 nightâs 13-2 trouncing of Cumberland American, Nettoâs contingent snatched its first District IV title since 2009, and it did so with outstanding pitching, defense and hitting.
If thereâs one category, however, thatâs particularly impressive about Lincolnâs 13 players, itâs the offense. It doesnât matter whoâs 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.
âThese kids have been hitting well since they were eight years old; thatâs how long most of them have been together,â noted assistant Gordon Zaniol. âEvery single day during the season, weâre hitting. Occasionally, theyâd get a Sunday off, but even if it rained, weâd go inside and hit.
âOur ability at the plate showed when we won the 11-year-old Major Division district championship last summer,â he added. âWe 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. Youâre seeing that with our hitting.â
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.
âPeople may look at us as a great hitting team, but weâre also very smart defensively,â the elder Zaniol indicated. âI think our hitting at times overshadows that; we are solid with the bats, but thatâs because every one of these kids plays with the Blackstone Valley Spinners (an AAU program for all ages). Theyâll play 50-60 games a year with us and for the AAU team.
âI still say itâs all about baseball IQ; they play smart baseball,â he added. âThey know what to do on the field and when, what to do in certain situations. Thatâs key for us.â
Thereâs another thing that impresses both the public and those who know the players best â parents and friends â and thatâs their discipline.
âWhen Matt came in for our very first meeting of the season, he told the kids that weâre a family, and that we always need to have each othersâ backs,â fellow assistant Marty Gaughan noted. âHe 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.
ââIf someone says anything negative about one of your family members, you tell them to stop, you donât want to hear it; thatâs what you say, right?ââ he continued. âItâs the same way with this family.â
Netto immediately piped up, âThere 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 thatâs what I wanted. They needed to know thatâs one of our family rules.
âThe same thing goes for the coaches. If someone says something bad about us, you defend us, tell him or her to stop. Itâs all because a positive atmosphere canât happen without the philosophy.
âWe 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 â to succeed â we have to move forward.
âIf you let a kid be a kid, heâs going to have fun no matter what happens, but itâs 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 Iâm sitting.â
He referred to his occupation as a fundraiser for Hasbro Childrenâs Hospital.
âI see sick kids every day,â he noted. âThese kids are out playing baseball and having fun, so itâs not life-threatening, not like I see day-in and day-out. How can being involved with a kidâs baseball team be that critical?â
Another motto the club follows stems from the philoslophy put forth by former Lincoln All-Stars mentor, the late and beloved Randy Hien.
âThereâs an old saying Randy used to use, and I learned it from him a long time ago,â Gaughan Sr. mentioned. âItâs âYouâre only as good as your 14th playerâ (in Lincolnâs case this year, itâs 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 wouldnât know the difference between the No. 1 player of the No. 14 kid.
âHe kept them pumped up and energized and interested every day, and weâre following the same philosophy.â
Netto and Co. donât 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.
âThis is going to be a great learning opportunity,â Netto stated. âIf they succeed, theyâll learn how to win graciously. If they donât, theyâll learn how to accept defeat and handle it like a mature young man.
âThereâs a lot more to this than just baseball,â he continued. âThatâs the beauty of this game. It teaches you more about life than just playing, the game itself. I have no idea where Iâd be without this game, and I hope our kids pick up on that.
âWeâre just going into it with the motto, âOne game at a time.â 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, theyâve learned youâve got to prepare the same way, know that the opponent is going to come at you with both barrels.â
Stated Coach Zaniol: âWe always tell the kids, âJust believe in your abilities, and your confidence will move you forward.ââ