As remarkable as the summer of 2013 was for Fairfield American's 11-year-old all-stars, manager Mike Steed had every reason to downplay the expectations for his team a year later. After all, success one year doesn't guarantee success the next year, especially in Little League baseball.
"Everything changes when they're 12," Steed said Tuesday. "Kids get bigger at different times. There's no telling which kid matures quicker than the next kid."
Those changes, no matter how extreme, can make the games unpredictable. And yet, as much as the results changed for some teams this year, they remained the same for Fairfield American.
Fairfield American defended its state title, crushing South Windsor National 22-2 over two games last weekend. This year, the 12-year-old all-stars will have a chance to do more, too.
The next summer stop for the all-stars will be in Bristol, where the Connecticut champion will compete against teams from five other states in the New England Regional. Fairfield American opens pool play Friday at 8:15 p.m. against Williston, VT, at Breen Field. "It's a real special accomplishment," Steed said. "We just want to savor it and enjoy it."
The road to Bristol hasn't been easy for Fairfield American, or at least not as easy as its 12-1 record might indicate. With all 11 players returning off last year's state title, the all-stars have twice faced elimination -- the first time following an 8-4 loss to Norwalk in the Division 1 playoffs of Section 1.
Location: Southwestern Connecticut on Long Island Sound
Town population: 59,400
Notable: Home to Fairfield University
State title: Routed South Windsor National 12-2 in championship game to earn fourth state crown in five years
Last N.E. appearance: 2012 (Won regional)
Location: Southern Maine coast, six miles north of Portland
Town population: 11,185
Notable: Falmouth appears in several horror stories by Maine author Stephen King, most notably "Salem's Lot"
State title: Beat defending state champion Saco/Maremont 13-10 in double-elimination final
Last N.E. appearance: 1992
Location: Cape Cod, Mid-Cape region
Town population: 45,189
Notable: Largest town on Cape includes village of Hyannis, home to the fabled Kennedy family compound
State title: Avenged earlier round-robin loss by beating Holden 7-5 in extra-inning championship game
Last N.E. appearance: First appearance
Location: South-central New Hampshire, nine miles west of Manchester
Town population: 17,650
Notable: Home to St. Anselm College and the state women's prison
State title: Swept title series, blanking Portsmouth 9-0 and 10-0
Last N.E. appearance: 2011
Location: Northeast corner of Rhode Island, on Massachusetts border
Town population: 33,506
Notable: Cumberland Farms convenience-store chain grew out of a family dairy farm started in Cumberland in 1939 with one cow
State title: Edged Cranston Western 8-7 in double-elimination final to reach New Englands for the second time in four years
Last N.E. appearance: 2011 (Won regional)
Location: Northwestern Vermont, six miles east of Burlington, 50-minutes south of Canadian border
Town population: 8,698
Notable: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who launched Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream in nearby Burlington, live in Williston
State title: Blasted Bennington 27-0 in double-elimination final to capture second state crown in seven years
Last N.E. appearance: 2008
"We've been to the brink a few times during the course of the season," Steed said, "but the kids have been resilient."
Fairfield American responded to its lone blemish by besting Norwalk 10-7, thanks to Jamie Flink's three-homer, five-RBI day. And, in the winner-take-all Section 1 final against Farmington, Fairfield American scratched out a 2-1, eight-inning win on Vince Camera's walk-off single.
Flink, who has split time at first base, right field and on the mound, said that the District 2 pool play opener -- a 7-4, come-from-behind victory over Monroe -- later helped the all-stars thrive in close games. Steed also said that close wins have been important, especially when the margin of error in the playoffs can be so thin.
"It helps us grow, it helps us understand that we can overcome difficult situations," Steed said. "The kids gained confidence with every win."
With Fairfield American now stopping in Bristol, where a trip to the Little League World Series is at stake, each win will increase in importance. Champions from six New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont -- will each play four pool play games. The top four teams by record will advance to the semifinals on Aug. 7, with the championship on Aug. 9.
The regional will serve as a brief vacation for the Little Leaguers, who will stay overnight in dorms on the Bristol campus. For the players, Steed said, the experience will be new and exciting.Read Full Article
"It's going to be fun for these guys," Steed said. "What's better than having a summer camp when you're hanging out with your buddies 24/7, eating bad food away from mom and dad, playing baseball, swimming and (playing) pingpong?
"It's like Shangri-la for 12 year olds."
Flink said: "Some of us have done sleepaway camps, but never sleeping away with our whole team."
The more important games, of course, will be played on the baseball field. Fairfield American, with its potent bats -- Camera and Brian Howell have hit a team-leading nine homers apiece among the 33 slugged by the team -- and deep pitching staff (they go six-men deep, led in wins by PJ Egan and Sam Davenport), will attempt to be the fifth team from Connecticut in seven years to reach the LLWS in South Williamsport, Pa. Fairfield American made the trip in 2010 and 2012.
Howell, who pitches and plays shortstop, attended the LLWS in 2010 to watch his brother, Chris, play. Brian enjoyed that experience, during which Fairfield American went 1-2, and he hopes he'll have a chance to return.
"We've had two teams go to (South) Williamsport and one in Bristol (2011, Fairfield American), so we have a lot of pressure on us," Howell said.