CUMBERLAND --- Now comes the fun part.
The road to their second straight R.I. District IV Major Division title was a cakewalk. So was their defense of their state championship.
Now the 13 players and the coaching staff on the Cumberland all-star softball team will set their sights on a bigger prize – the Eastern Regional championship – when the 10-team tournament gets under way today at Breen Field on the Bart Giamatti Complex in Bristol, Conn.
Cumberland (8-0) will have two tough games right out of the gate, battling Scarborough, Maine in today’s 2 p.m. New England pool play opener, and then defending New England champ Fairfield, Conn. tomorrow at 5 p.m.
On Sunday, Cumberland will play Jesse Burkett of Worcester, Mass. at 8 p.m., and after spending a day off on Monday, the locals will wrap up pool play on Tuesday with a 2 p.m. game against Swanton, Vt.
If Cumberland finishes in the top four in its pool, it will play in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round against one of the top four seeds from the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes squads from Perryville, Md., New Hyde Park, N.Y., Robbinsville, N.J., Warrington, Penn., and Bear, Del. The fourth seeds from each region will face the other region’s top seeds, while the second seeds will oppose the third seeds.
It’s a different format from last year’s tournament, where the top four teams from each region played each other again for their respective regional tournament and then the New England champion would take on the Mid-Atlantic champion for the Eastern Regional crown.
The semifinals are scheduled for Thursday at 4 and 7 p.m., and the championship game is Friday at 7 p.m. The winner will then advance to the Little League World Series, which will take place from Aug. 9-15 in Portland, Ore.
The competition promises to be far tougher and the pitching a lot faster than what Cumberland faced in its five games in the District IV tournament and three-game sweep of the state playoffs.
In the districts, Cumberland outscored its opponent by a whopping 81-5, and only one game, a 15-0 victory over Lincoln that went the six-inning distance, was not a four-inning, mercy-rule special.
In the state tournament, each game was cut short after four innings, as Cumberland posted its three victories by a combined score of 42-0. In the last two games, including the 11-0 triumph over Portsmouth in the title game, Cumberland manager Ken Jalbert gave each of his four pitchers an inning of work on the mound.
Now comes the fun part.
“We’re looking forward to the tournament,” Jalbert said on Wednesday night as he was preparing to travel to Bristol with his team the following morning. “I think we’re a stronger hitting team and a deeper pitching team than we were last year. It does concern me how the girls are going to react once we’re in a close game because we haven’t played in any [close games] yet, but I think we’ll be just fine and ready to play.”
In last year’s New England pool play, Cumberland was one of three teams that went 3-1 and ended up in a three-way tie for first place. But Cumberland lost out on the tiebreaker for the first seed because of its run differential, and that gave Fairfield, a team the locals topped during pool play, 4-3, the top seed. The locals then played Hermon, Maine, which handed Cumberland its pool play loss, and dropped a 2-0 decision.
Last year, Cumberland was loaded with 11-year-old players and had the youngest team in the tournament. This year, it’s the opposite. Eight of Cumberland’s 13 players are back, and also included in that number are 10 players who were members of the North Cumberland Middle School ballclub that claimed the state championship this past spring.
“Hopefully, that will pay dividends this year,” remarked Jalbert, who also reported that Fairfield, one of the oldest teams in last year’s tournament, has just three players back, including one of their top pitchers. “The girls are a year older and a year better, and I hope they learned a lot from last year.”
This is Jalbert’s first year as the head coach of the Major Division all-star team – he was an assistant coach on last year’s squad – but this isn’t his first time coaching a Little League team to a regional tournament.
Two years ago, he was the manager of the Minor Division (ages 9 and 10) all-star team that made the first of its back-to-back trips to the Eastern Regionals in Fleetsville, Penn. Everyone but Bodington played on that team, which after winning its first two games, lost its next three.
Two of those losses came to teams that are currently in this year’s tournament in Bristol. They were mercy-ruled by Fairfield, 15-5 and lost to eventual regional champion New Hyde Park, 6-3.
“It’s interesting,” remarked Jalbert, who is joined on his coaching staff by longtime coaches John Brodeur and Bob Ross. “It’s two years later, and most of the teams we saw in Pennsylvania are in this tournament. Scarborough was there and we beat them, 3-0, and Perryville also played in the tournament.”
In that Minor Division tournament, the ballclub’s pitching wasn’t up to par with some of its opponents, and control issues also played a role in the final three losses. But since then, the pitching has greatly improved, to the point where this year’s staff looks a lot better than last year’s very good one.
Cumberland, which carried four pitchers on its roster last year, have two of them back in NCMS ace pitcher Sydney Provencal and southpaw control specialist Samantha Jalbert, and joining them on the staff is hard-throwing southpaw Jocelyn Bodington, a key member of last year’s state championship Minor Division all-star team, and Katie Calabro.
“A lot of teams that we played had just one pitcher, but we’ve been blessed with four very good ones,” said Jalbert. “The toughest part is finding time for everyone to pitch.”
Kailey Brodeur, last season’s catcher, is also back, and when she’s not behind the plate, she’s either playing third base or the outfield, and Emily Anderson, who did not play on the team last year because of a broken foot, is assuming the catching duties.
The entire infield is also back from last season. Ellie Ackerman is at first base, and Jalbert, Provencal, and Bodington can also play there when they aren’t on the mound. Julianne Ross is at second, Maddi Leite is at third (and also sees time at shortstop), and Brianna Frankina plays shortstop.
Emily D’Abrosca, who had a great tournament offensively last year in Bristol, is in right field and can also play second base. Jalbert, Provencal, and Bodington play center field when they aren’t pitching, and in left field are Helena Juntunen and Madison Mercure.
Defensively, Cumberland is as solid as it was a year ago, but offensively, they may be more potent. Some of the credit, offered Jalbert, goes toward the pitching machines the town bought for the Little League that has allowed the girls to face fast pitching in batting practice, and Cumberland High senior-to-be Kendra Plant has also stopped by practice to throw some BP.
Cumberland’s hard-hitting lineup features plenty of speed at the top of it with Ross as the leadoff batter and D’Abrosca batting second, Frankina, Provencal, and Leite in the run-producing 3-4-5 spots, Brodeur hitting sixth, Juntunen and Bodington seventh, Ackerman and Anderson eighth, and Calabro, Mercure, and Jalbert giving the club a “second leadoff batter” at the bottom of the order.
“We weren’t as good a hitting team as we are this year,” said Jalbert. “Our girls have really been hitting the ball, and everyone can put the ball in play. Seven of our girls were starters for North Cumberland and they had the benefit of facing eighth-grade pitching all year long. The speed of the pitching we’re going to face in the tournament shouldn’t intimidate them.”