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It wasnâ€™t that long ago when parity was the name of the game in the Division I ranks.
In those days, the competition was so balanced that as many as 9-10 teams entered each season with a realistic chance at state championship glory. And during in an 11-year stretch from 2001-2011, nine different teams enjoyed their moments in the spotlight with the championship plaque.
But then came last season -- and Lincolnâ€™s dominant march through the division. The Lions stormed to a 22-0 record, capturing all but four of their games by five or more runs, and not only won the programâ€™s first championship, but also became the first team since 1999 to do so undefeated.
And hereâ€™s a scary fact not too many folks around the division want to hear -- the Lions could be better than they were last year.
For starters, they graduated just three seniors. They have arguably the best two players in the state in senior pitcher-shortstop Lindsay Mayer (whoâ€™s off to play for the University of Virginia once she graduates) and senior shortstop-third baseman Emily Bouthillette (whoâ€™s also Division I-bound to nearby Bryant University). And their junior and sophomore classes is also among the finest groups around these parts.
â€śI think (the championship) is Lincolnâ€™s to lose,â€ť Cumberland coach Marty Crowley said. â€śTheyâ€™re strong everywhere. Theyâ€™re probably better this year than they were last year. Theyâ€™re that good.â€ť
Second-year coach Dick Ryan didnâ€™t beat around the bush when he admitted that he knows he had a good crew coming back to defend its title. But heâ€™s not taking anything for granted, especially with some of the stateâ€™s other top teams also returning with some bonafide talent.
â€śThere are some very good teams out there,â€ť he was quick to note. â€śCoventryâ€™s coming back with every single kid. They probably have the best freshman in the state, Kaitlin Mattera. North Kingstownâ€™s going to be good, and Marty has everyone but one senior coming back at Cumberland.
â€śOn any given day, anything can happen. But I really like my team. Weâ€™re solid, and I think if everything works the way it should work, we should be really tough to beat. Obviously, once we get to the (state) tournament, teams are going to have to beat us twice, and thatâ€™s not going to be easy.â€ť
Itâ€™s going to be fun to see what Mayer does in her fourth season with the Lions. She was the stateâ€™s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012, batting .453 with three home runs, 10 doubles, and 24 RBIs, while on the mound, she went 19-0 with 191 strikeouts and an 0.66 ERA.
But donâ€™t expect Mayer to duplicate her pitching numbers this season. Ryan plans to have Mayer â€śpitch eight or nine games during the regular seasonâ€ť and give the rest of the starts to junior Lauren Hervieux, who went 3-0 last season, and sophomore Alyssa Schermerhorn.
Bouthillette, who also batted over .400, led the team in home runs (seven), and was second or third in almost every other offensive category, will return to the cleanup spot in a frightening top of the lineup that has junior Casie Beauchemin (a corner outfielder who batted .430 as a No. 9 batter last year) leading off, sophomore center fielder Adriana Toro (who led the state in batting (.603) and hits (44) and also drive in 28 runs), batting second, and after Mayer and Bouthillette, sophomore catcher Stacy Mayer, yet another .400 batter, hitting fifth.
Mayer and Bouthillette are also the Lionsâ€™ only two seniors on the roster, but that doesnâ€™t mean the experience on the team drops off after them. Junior second baseman Meredith Walsh and junior third baseman Kelly Dyer, along with Beauchemin, have been steady contributors to the team since their freshman years.
As for the Clippers, the team is also very long on experienced players and may be setting a state record in senior captains this year with seven -- shortstop Samantha Bertherman, catcher Bridget Connors, first baseman-pitcher Caylin Legare, right fielder Tayla Noke, center fielder Alexis Descoteaux, and second basemen Sydnee Shabomardenly and Katie DeBlois.
Bertherman and Connors are the lone starters from the Clippersâ€™ 2011 championship team, and while Connors missed all of last season with a knee injury, she is 100 percent and good to go this spring, noted Crowley.
The Clippers are also in good hands with junior Juliet Nelson and Legare on their pitching staff and a wealth of talent in their other three classes.
â€śWe have a good nucleus coming back,â€ť said Crowley, whose team, along with the Lions, has averaged over 12 regular-season victories a season for the past four years. â€śWe have seven seniors, and that usually bodes well for you when you have a lot of experienced upperclassmen. It helps obviously getting Bridget back in the lineup. We really like this yearâ€™s team and we like our outlook, and weâ€™re looking forward to this season.â€ť
While graduation took away one or two key players on the Lions and Clippers, it hit Mount St. Charles hard and erased four of the top five batters in its lineup, including the Hendricks twins, Olivia and Emily, who are currently playing at URI.
As a matter of fact, the Mounties may have the youngest Division I team with no seniors on it, but they do have some talented players back, especially in the junior class with catcher Briana Castro, pitcher-infielder Kristen Rodrigues, middle infielder Emily DiCecco, and outfielder Theresa Pereira. Sophomores Taylor Dill and Elisabeth Berard also contributed as ninth-graders last year.
As for East Providence, the Townies caught fire a season ago and finished their regular season with sixth straight victories to get to the .500 mark and qualify for the playoffs. With a good group of upperclassmen back from that team, the Townies could be in position to nail down their first winning season since 2005.
Senior pitcher Lauren Discuillo, catcher Lindsee Allienello, shortstop Amy DeCastro, and third baseman Lucianna Medici are beginning their fourth seasons with the Townies, who boast a large sophomore contingent on their roster.
Tolmanâ€™s steady rise -- from two-time slow-pitch champion in 2006 to Division III powerhouse from 2007-2009 to a superb Division II team that averaged 14 regular-season victories a year from 2010 to last season -- has brought them to the top of the mountain and the Division I circuit this season, and the Tigers will take on the stateâ€™s best ballclubs with a senior-dominated attack thatâ€™s led by senior center fielder Ashley Clark (who will continue her softball career at Assumption College) and senior right fielder Ashley Hessler (who will play at the University of Bridgeport).
Senior ace pitcher Olivia Larson is also back in the lineup, as are classmates Brittany Bilodeau (left fielder), Jordyn Klemanchuck (shortstop), and Crystal Ritcey, and sophomores Megan Klemanchuck, Cristin Chiaverini, and Leiandra Wilson.
Also up from Division II is Woonsocket, which has an excellent run in last yearâ€™s playoffs before falling in the losersâ€™ bracket finals. But unlike the Tigers, the Villa Novans are making a roller-coaster return to the stateâ€™s top division. They last played here in 2009, went down to Division III in 2010 and won the championship, and spent the last two years in Division II, totaling just a dozen regular-season victories.
Sophomore ace pitcher Amanda Nunez is the top player back for the Novans, who also bring back senior infielder Amanda Alexion, senior outfielder Taylor Kerrigan, junior outfielder Varsana Schobel, sophomore infielder Taylor Pawlina, and sophomore outfielder Tayla Sevigny.
In Division II, most folks are picking East Greenwich as the team to beat, especially after the Avengers won the last two championships and were left in the division after the RIILâ€™s offseason realignment, but another team who is expected to be in the mix for the title is North Smithfield, which lost just one senior to graduation and has several talented players who are back for their third and fourth seasons with the varsity.
The Northmen, who went 13-3 last season, their best mark since 2005, enter the season as the favorites to claim the Division II-North crown behind the pitching of junior ace Karissa Carlton and a productive lineup that features senior center fielder Jamie LaFazia, junior shortstop Jess Tremblay, senior first baseman Megan Brodeur, junior right fielder Katherine West, senior catcher Sam Archambault, junior third baseman Angela Pasquariello. and senior second baseman Tara Larson.
Joining the Division II ranks this season is last yearâ€™s Division III champions, Davies, which averaged a shade under 13 victories in its six seasons in the league and enters its new division with most of the cast that helped them dethrone defending champion Central in last yearâ€™s finals.
â€śWeâ€™re going to have our work cut out for us, but weâ€™re up for the challenge,â€ť said Davies coach Scott Cooper, who will be part of a competitive Division II-West that also features Central, a talented North Providence team, and an improved St. Raphael team. â€śI think weâ€™re going to surprise a lot of people.â€ť
The Patriotsâ€™ young, but talented sophomore battery is back in ace pitcher Madison Goodhart and catcher Madison Cooper, and the team has senior leadership in their tri-captains, shortstop Kaitlin Flynn, second baseman Rosaliz Torres, and first baseman Ashley Cuccorelli, who is currently out with an injury. Big things are also expected from junior third baseman Kassandra Therrien, sophomore first baseman-outfielder Victoria Lopes, and freshman left fielder Laura Sylvestre.
The Saintsâ€™ program had been down since they last made noise as a Division I team in 2008, but after going .500 last season, they will be vying for a winning season with a talented group of players. Junior shortstop-pitcher Hayley Microulis is the teamâ€™s captain, and pitcher-first baseman Quinci Eacueo and outfielders Lauren Sequin, Arianna Haddock, and Sabrina Verrechia also bring leadership to the table.
The rest of the Saintsâ€™ roster is made up of underclassmen, and a few to watch are sophomore center fielder-pitcher Kaylee Sylvestre, sophomore catcher-third baseman Alexis Vieira, freshman catcher-third baseman Haley Mitsmenn, and freshman middle infielder Kamryn Labree.
With Davies and Central out of the Division III picture, which team will step forward and make its presence felt in the nine-team league?
Most folks believe the Juanita Sanchez-Rocky Hill co-op squad has a strong club on paper and will be tough to beat, but Shea is also expected to be in the mix with a team that is led by senior twin sisters Jenna Senecal (shortstop) and Jocelyn Senecal (catcher).
The Raiders, who have 23 regular-season victories over the past two seasons, also have senior Caitlin Salisbury and sophomore Brenda Paiz in their lineup, and Central Falls, which has averaged 11 victories over the past four years, will also be a team to watch, especially with its lone senior, Megan Faria, leading the way. Nine juniors are on the Warriorsâ€™ roster.