SMITHFIELD, R.I. — There’s no curse, only good Little Leaguers in Rhode Island. And now a town that hasn’t won a 12-and-under state title since 1967 is hunting for a spot in the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Smithfield is a big underdog. Rhode Island was recently moved out of the New England Regional (Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire) and sent to the Metro Regional, where they will face New York at 7 p.m. Saturday in Bristol, Conn. If they win, Smithfield faces New Jersey or Connecticut. Teams that draw from up to five times more players, coach Eric Gibree says.
The game will be televised on ESPN+.
But Smithfield is a team of fighters. It brushed off a 2-1 loss to Cranston Western in the first round of states and won three consecutive games to reach the championship for the first time since 1987. They beat South Kingston 2-1 in extra innings.
After losing to Cranston Western, Gibree had some advice for the players he’s coached since they were eight years old.
“He told us if you put an animal in a cage, they’re going to fight their way out,” said the coach’s son, Gavin. “So that’s what we did.”
This Smithfield team has been in state title games for the last three years: 10U, 11U, and 12U.
“We won districts three times in a row,” said 12-year-old Gavin. “So, districts wasn’t the main prize. We were kind of going for states and regionals.”
Some players didn’t know about their brush with history until after state. With little to say about it during a fundraiser for their team’s journey to Williamsport hosted by Uno Pizzeria and Grill in Smithfield, which was donating 25 percent of all sales Thursday night to the team, their eyes are firmly fixed on Saturday’s game.
“We’re going to have to play hard, we’re going to have to be smart, and we’re going to have to hit the ball and play good defense,” Gavin said.
They’ll need to do everything well if they want to move on.
Coach Gibree said the team’s chemistry is its biggest asset. They’ve played baseball together since they were 8, and play on the same basketball teams.
One player stoically said, “I’ve known these guys since we were kids.”
“Most of these kids ride their bikes to each other’s houses and play together in the summertime,” Coach Gibree said. All but two of the players attend the only middle school in town.
“We’re not that big,” Coach Gibree said. “We’re a league of 270 players. We had 15 12-year-olds available for All-Star selection. So the group is very small — and it’s been smaller in the past. If 12 kids sign up for All-Stars, 12 kids make the team. So like I said, close-knit.”
The good thing about Rhode Island is it has tough Little League teams.
Player Connor Curtis, who pitches for Smithfield, said this is their moment.
“I mean, for me personally, I’ve never really had anything like this,” 12-year-old Curtis said. “It’s a new experience, a new tale in my life. I mean, there’s so much more to live but this is the moment I’m in right now and it’s crazy.”
He said his team is prepared and showed it at state.
“We have the talent to go as far as we want,” Curtis said. “We can make it to Williamsport, but we’ve just got to keep our minds sharp and find what we can, keep it under control. Pitches have to stay tight and fielders have to keep it tight. Everyone’s got to do their job and we should be able to get as far as we want.”
Frank Castellone, the father of player Brayden, who sat at a table with about a dozen of his teammates in front of television cameras on Thursday, said the camaraderie is why he put his son on the team. Brayden is one of only two players from outside the city but attends Saint Philip School in Smithfield.
“I can tell you, as a parent, it has been extraordinarily emotional,” Castellone said. “You know, it really has. And it says something about the nostalgia of Little League that I think really perpetuates that. It’s been an unbelievable experience.”
The players were met at the restaurant by three players from the 1967 championship team: Noel Bennett, Bob Potter, and Tim Boyle. The men have remained friends since their playing days.
With the Smithfield team huddled around them, they offered advice to the kids before the big game.
“We still to this day remember how it felt,” Boyle said. We’re so happy for these kids. I told the kids to be confident, they’ve already achieved a state championship. ... You can do it!”
State Senator David Tikoian shook each of their hands and wished them luck.
“I’m just so excited, for the whole town, especially this team, their families, the coaches,” Tikoian said. “They really worked hard. They’re deserving to go to Bristol.”
And as for whether there’s a Smithfield curse? Tikoian said it’s just Smithfield’s time.
“Just look at that local team, the Red Sox,” he said. “There was a long time before they went back to the World Series. It’s no surprise that here we are in Smithfield. We’re going back and it’s taken that long. But listen, this is great.”
Read more about Smithfield and the Little League World Series:
- Aug. 20: Smithfield, R.I., wins again to advance at Little League World Series
- Aug. 18: Smithfield falls to Tennessee at Little League World Series
- Aug. 16: Curtis’ 15-strikeout gem leads Smithfield past Nevada at Little League World Series
- Aug. 11: Smithfield, R.I., team heads to the Little League World Series for the first time in 72 years
- Aug. 10: Rhode Island team is one game away from the Little League Baseball World Series
- Aug. 7: Rhode Island state champs bounce back at Little League regional tournament
- Aug. 3: For the first time in 56 years, this Little League team could go all the way