Veteran Mount St. Charles head coach Cliff Matthews couldn't help but pitch a bit of levity when asked how his girls' softball team should fare when Division I fast-pitch action begins this week.
“It's not about Lincoln or Cumberland, La Salle or Coventry; it's all about the Mounties!” he laughed. “Tell (Lions' mentor) Dick Ryan we're coming after them.”
Naturally, he was joking. How could he not? Lincoln hasn't lost a game since 2011.
After manufacturing a perfect 22-0 mark and claiming its first state D-I title ever two years ago, Ryan's bunch repeated the feat last spring, when the Lions went 21-0 and edged Coventry in a thrilling championship final.
In most coaches' minds – yes, Matthews included – Lincoln is the odds-on favorite to make it Title No. 3. Ryan's only lost two starters – with righty fireballer Lindsay Mayer moving on to the University of Virginia and shortstop Emily Bouthillette now scooping up grounders at Bryant – and has a whopping seven returnees.
“Of course, we're going to try to go undefeated again, but do you know how hard that is?” Ryan asked. “We've won 43 straight, and – over the past 25 years – we've got the longest winning streak of any public school (softball program) in the state. St. Raphael has the record, but obviously, it's private.
“Going unbeaten, you've got to be lucky; everything has to go your way,” he added. “Our goal this year is just to be at Rhode Island College at the end. Streaks are nice, but we just want to be in the final. Last season, we had to win two International tiebreakers. What does that tell you about luck? You've got to be good, but there's some luck involved, no question.”
Other schools who will vie to bring the Lions' train to a grinding halt include Matthews' Mounties, always-strong Cumberland, young but improved La Salle and usual mainstay Coventry, to name just a few.
In Division II, stalwarts should be St. Raphael, a state finalist last June (it lost to North Providence), North Smithfield and Davies, not to mention other hopefuls.
That being said, here's more detailed information on your teams from the Blackstone Valley:
Under Ryan, Lincoln has rattled off 43 straight victories over the past two campaigns, and both led to thrilling state titles. The natural question: Can it do it again?
That depends, Ryan said.
Everything hinges on how a few newcomers meld with a superb core of upperclassmen, seven of whom started in that championship game against the Knotty Oakers over nine months ago.
Those in the infield include senior McKenzie Cavanaugh at first; classmate Meredith Walsh at second; senior Kellyn Dyer at third; and junior Stacey Mayer at catcher, though she will see more time at shortstop.
The outfield will consist of junior mainstay Adriana Toro in center and senior Casie Beauchemin in right, though the mentor is seeking someone to replace senior Lauren Hervieux in left. The reason: Hervieux will be one of Ryan's starting pitchers, the other junior Alyssa Schermerhorn, who was his DH last season. (She had suffered an arm injury and couldn't throw, but did hit with aplomb).
“Lauren went 4-0 when Lindsay (Mayer) didn't throw, and Alyssa was 1-0 but mostly served at DH,” he stated. “The good news is we're going to have a very strong outfield, with Adrianna a two-time All-State first-team selection, and Casie, who was second-team All-State last year.”
He mentioned Toro recently verbally committed to Coastal Carolina, while the younger Mayer (who was second-team All-State as a second baseman as a frosh and earned the same as the backstop last spring) did the same to St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.
The quartet of Cavanaugh, Walsh, Dyer and Mayer will form perhaps the best infield in the Rhode Island. Ryan believes Mayer will best serve the club at short; that's why he's pondering placing sophomore newcomer Abby Majeau behind the plate.
As for who will fill Hervieux's absence in left, Ryan isn't so sure, though he has stated sophomore Maddie Georgeu, classmate Cianna Dumas and junior Kaisha Licciardi have looked good in preseason workouts.
“Kaisha played a little bit for Cumberland last year, but she moved back to Lincoln; she'll help,” he said. “We also have a senior, Stephanie Brennan, who will be a back-up at first and may be our DH. She's got a heckuva bat.
“I told the girls at our first meeting that we have only three goals: To play good softball all year; to win the division; and to win the state championship,” he continued. “Still, everything has to go right. There's some good competition out there.
“La Salle will be tough; they have a new kid, Alexis San Germano, and she'll be one of the top freshmen in the state. Coventry will be right up there again, Cumberland's always good and Bay View and Smithfield are strong. We've got some talent, sure, but we have two new pitchers. They only threw five games between them. This division is going to be tough.”
Then there are the Clippers, who last year went 11-5 in D-I for before suffering an upset loss to Mount St. Charles in a playoff preliminary clash.
Long-time mentor Marty Crowley indicated he has just three returning starters, among them senior pitcher/first baseman Juliet Nelson; junior left fielder Rachel Gillardi (though her duties could change); and sophomore Taylor Fay, who played at third late last spring but should open at short.
“My catcher, first and second basemen, shortstop, center fielder and right fielder have all graduated, but life goes on,” he sighed. “You have to move on. Who's going to play? That's a good question, but I'll say this: We have battles going on for virtually every position.”
Crowley is looking at a quartet of outfielders right now, and they include junior Haley Kirby, classmate Kendra Walker, freshman Katie Calabro and senior Olivia Sherman.
He noted senior Haley Bouley will probably be at first, “but everything's up for grabs, including catcher, second and third,” he said. “We're still trying to figure out who will go where. We also have a talented group of freshmen who are looking pretty good.”
“We have 12 in our program, and they're all very gifted; some will be thrown right into the fire because that's how good they are,” he explained. “Most of them came from North Cumberland, which won three straight Rhode Island Middle School titles. They know what it takes to win.”
Among them: Maddi Leite, Julianne Ross and Emily Anderson, not to mention Miranda Vileu of South Cumberland.
Others in the mix for significant time are seniors Bea Caron (infield) and Janelle Hashway (catcher).
“We're young, but it's very exciting what lies ahead,” Crowley noted. “This isn't about rebuilding but retooling. We want to keep the pride of CHS softball going. They're a great group of girls from top to bottom, and they're working very hard.”
As for Mount St. Charles, Matthews stated the 2013 campaign was “a down year for us” due to numbers, but he has more this time around. He will start six returning seniors, among them shortstop Briana Castro, center fielder Emily DiCecco, pitcher Kylie Finnerty, left fielder Sarah Kennedy, right fielder/pitcher Kristen Rodrigues and third baseman Theresa Pereira.
The only question mark: Pereira, who last fall suffered a torn ACL in a playoff soccer game and underwent reconstructive knee surgery in December.
“She's excellent at soccer, basketball and softball, so she's a multi-sport athlete; she's a vanishing breed,” he said of Pereira. “She was really hurt and couldn't play basketball, but she's special. She's been working out with us, taking ground balls, and she's always pushing the limit. I've got her on a limited regimen, but she's told me she wants to come back in late April.
“She's the epitome of student-athlete,” he added. “Another problem is we haven't been outside yet (due to the (horrendous winter/spring) weather. We were told we could be on the outfield grass maybe early (this) week.”
Matthews explained junior Taylor Dill will catch Finnerty, the girl who pinned the 7-3 playoff loss on Cumberland last May, and “there's a huge likelihood” he will start freshman Marissa Santoro at third pending Pereira's prognosis.
He also will rely on frosh hurler Taylor Newcomb.
“We haven't had a freshman pitch for us since 2008, when Olivia Hendricks did it for us,” he mentioned. “She went on to become All-State, and we were the Division I regular-season champions that year.”
Tolman chief Craig Giarrusso has only three players, all juniors, returning to a club which last year closed the D-I season at 3-13, but he nevertheless has high hopes.
Junior Leandra Wilson will start at either second or third, while Megan Klemanchuck will catch and Cristin Chaiverini will man first base, though she sustained an injury recently and is day-to-day.
“I have a sophomore, Kaylee Moline-Vaz, coming back,” Giarrusso said. “She was my DH, but she may be at first with Cristin out for a bit.”
He admitted he has a bevy of freshmen, and he may start as many as five. The good news: He landed a sophomore transfer from King Philip Regional, Emily Truesdale, and she will play shortstop.
Two of those ninth-graders probably will share circle duties – Megan Salzillo and Hannah Caliri, both righties.
“Both will play defense when the other's pitching,” he noted. “We had a scrimmage at Middletown (on Tuesday), and the conditions were horrible; our play wasn't much better, but we scrimmaged Coventry (Thursday) and we did OK. I'm more optimistic now. We looked better, especially on offense.
“This team has already proven it can hit the ball, and that was a weakness last season,” he continued. “Our big thing was team chemistry – we didn't have any. This group, I think, does have it. My kids know that even if they're a starter, if someone does a better job, I'll replace her. I'm going to start what I think the best nine are depending on that particular game.”
Woonsocket finished 1-15 in D-I a year ago, but should improve, given the fact they return several talented starters.
They include junior pitcher Amanda Nunez, not to mention classmates Taylor Pawlina, Davia MacNeil and Tayla Sevigny. One of the lone seniors, Varsana Schobel, will be expected to lead the team both offensively and defensively.
If there's an area favorite here, it goes to St. Raphael, which manufactured an overall 22-4 mark last spring and finished as a state finalist after dropping the title tilt to North Providence.
Skipper Ron LaBree and assistant Kevin Shea have seven well-known starters returning to the diamond, and the springboard will be his battery, including junior pitcher Kaylee Sylvestre and sophomore backstop Haley Mitsmenn. A year ago, Sylvestre went 20-4 in the circle, while senior shortstop Hayley Microulis hurled a few others.
Also in the infield will be junior Alexis Vieira at third, sophomore Lauren Taylor at first and junior Mary Beth Mennucci at second. Still, Mitsmenn will see some time at third and Vieira at catcher. When Microulis is pitching, talented sophomore center fielder Kamryn LaBree will take short.
Other returnees will some outfield experience include junior Ashley Simmons and sophomore Grace Senra.
The elder LaBree mentioned he has three freshmen who should see significant action, including Hayley Howarth, who's so versatile she can play anywhere, including the circle; outfielder Lexi Sargo; and Cassandra Yanni, who “will be in the mix.
“I think our strengths are pitching and defense, just like last year,” he claimed. “We've also got some real good hitters back in Microulis, LaBree and Sylvestre, but I'm expecting a big year from Lauren Taylor. She and Kamryn look a lot stronger, so I'm thinking about moving (the latter) to the No. 3 spot (in the order).
“Howarth and Sargo are extremely fast, and I'm looking forward to see how Menucci hits the ball,” he continued. “She couldn't bat last season because of tendinitis. I've watched her in the cage, and she looks strong.
“We're expecting great things from the returnees because they've been there in the playoffs; They got a little taste of it last year, and I think they're hungry to get back.”
Then there's North Smithfield, which have just four returnees with significant playing time.
Heading that list is senior pitcher Karissa Carlton, who helped the Northmen to a 17-1 II-North record last season. Others include senior left fielder Allie DePari; junior center fielder Nicole Turcotte; and senior right fielder Katherine West.
Head coach Tom Bourgeois and assistant Paul Mercier, however, do have eight returning players, “and all of them will start,” Mercier said.
Senior Angela Pasquariello is slated to move from third to behind the plate, with sophomore Emily Larson at first, junior Katie McMullen at second, classmate Julia Cloutier at third and sophomore newcomer Melissa Cianci at short.
“We have a freshman named Mackenzie Cloutier, and she's our only left-handed hitter, so we're grooming her for the leadoff spot,” Mercier stated. “We want to do a lot with her because of her versatility.
“Actually, we're going to carry seven freshmen, and all have solid knowledge of the game; that's a credit to our junior high program,” he added. “This group is young, but we'll rely on our experienced battery and a great outfield. The only question is how fast the infield will jell. We're going to have to get better each game, and we don't want the kids to get down on themselves for making an error.
“We're young, so we're going to make mistakes. We want them to take baby steps.”
Two years ago, Davies Tech captured the R.I. Division III championship, but found D-II a tough road to hoe last season.
Competing in II-West against the likes of SRA, the Patriots mustered a 6-10 league mark but improved toward season's end; they dropped a tough 5-4 verdict to second-seeded Pilgrim in a state quarterfinal.
Head coach Scott Cooper and assistant Joe Handy nevertheless believe they have more experienced this time around, and the proof is in six returning starters.
Leading the way will be the junior battery of pitcher Maddie Goodhart and backstop Maddie Cooper, though the younger “Coop” had rotator cuff surgery in December. According to her dad and coach, she's been cleared to bat, but they're still waiting for the OK to throw.
Those two are quad-captains, along with senior third baseman Kassie Therrien and junior first baseman Victoria Lopes. Other starters include sophomore shortstop Laura Sylvestre and junior right fielder Carissa Kent, who will have some pitching duties as well.
“I think we'll be in the II-West hunt along with St. Ray's, Classical, North Providence and Central, but that's a really tough sub-division, one of the toughest in the state,” he offered. “The Saints and N.P. played in the final, so we're going to have to battle them if we want to get back to the championship (game) like we did in D-III.
“Our weaknesses last year were a combination of defensive mistakes and base-running issues,” he continued. “Those really hurt us. We love to run, but we have to make better decision on the basepaths … Our goal is go at least .500, then win our first playoff game; that would be a first for us in D-II in school history.”
Burrillville closed the 2013 campaign at 8-8, but will be expected to climb higher in the win column this spring.
A key reason: Senior Taylor Ross, who signed a letter-of-intent to attend URI on a soccer scholarship two months ago.
Still, there's plenty of talent around her, including classmates Tori Libby and Mikayla Fernandes; and juniors Kasey Desrosiers, Lauren LaMontagne, Samantha Moriarty and Teigan Palazini.
There's no doubt league champion Narragansett (16-0) and runner-up Juanita Sanchez/Rocky Hill Co-op (14-2) should top the league in victories this season, but there are others who want to rain on the two front-runners' proverbial parade.
Central Falls placed third in the division but has a whopping 18 players to draw upon this year. Headliners should be seniors Selena Martinez, Marien Peraza, Jailyn Ortiz and Erika Carter, a pitcher, though the Warriors also have standout junior Lesley McBurney.
As for Shea, veteran coach Mo Jackson will bring back only two seniors, including Jaycee Borden and Mayra Gonzalez, but he has some outstanding underclassmen to count on as well: Juniors Carol Rodriguez, Keysha Rodriguez, Victoria Araujo and Brenda Paiz; and sophomores Katrina Horne and Tatianna Ramos.
The Raiders went 4-12 a year ago to finish fourth in D-III.
Bishop Keough managed just one win in 16 regular-season contests last spring, though three key seniors – Suigly Mendoza, Katlyn Faria and Jenna Cabral – should help improve upon that mark this time.
Its best pure athlete, junior Ashley Correa, will serve the Koalas well offensively and defensively.