SMITHFIELD — There were many elements, from dominant pitching and good defense, to tough at-bats and timely hits, but the formula for success was always based on one number.
That’s how many players suited up for North Kingstown/Wickford Little League’s 11-year-old all-stars this summer, and that’s how many it took to win big again. This time, it was the state tournament, as NKW completed a sweep through the bracket last Wednesday with another top-to-bottom effort in a 2-1, championship-clinching victory over Smithfield.
“That’s just how this team has been through districts and the state tournament,” NKW head coach Dino Ciarniello said. “They all chipped in, all 13 of them. It didn’t matter if they got one at-bat or were pinch-runners, they came to practice and worked every single day. That’s what we needed to win this type of tournament.”
The win gave NKW its first state championship since the town’s two leagues merged last year, and possibly the first ever for a North Kingstown league. At the 12-year-old level, no team from Wickford or North Kingstown American ever won. Historical records for other divisions were not immediately available.
Regardless, it’s a significant achievement, and it also includes an opportunity to keep playing. The NKW stars are in Beverly, Massachusetts, this week for the East Regional.
“Just awesome for the kids,” Ciarniello said. “So proud of them. So happy we could do it for NKW Little League and for the town of North Kingstown. Just so proud that we were able to do it.”
The championship clincher featured more of the same from NKW’s pitchers. In three games, they allowed a total of just four runs, while striking out 32 batters.
“Four runs total,” Ciarniello said. “That’s pretty good stuff.”
Jack Diano started the final game and allowed a run in the top of the first inning on a walk, two passed balls and an RBI single by Nick Tremblay. But Diano was dominant from there, striking out 10, allowing just two more hits and settling his pitch count down enough to last into the fifth inning.
“Again, it came down to pitching,” Ciarniello said. “Jack had a little bit of a tough time finding the strike zone, but he battled through. They only got one on him and after that first inning, we blanked them the rest of the way.”
Diano got the first-inning run back almost by himself in the bottom of the first, drawing a walk, moving to second on a wild pitch and scoring when a Smithfield double play attempt went awry.
NKW then battled its way to the lead in the second inning. Gabe Saballa fouled off five pitches in an 11-pitch at-bat before ultimately drawing a walk to start the frame. He moved up on a wild pitch, and Bodie Forsell singled him home with the go-ahead run on a flare to center field.
When that lead ultimately held up, the sequence of Saballa’s at-bat and Forsell’s clutch hitting proved to be crucial.
“He was just on it,” Ciarniello said of Saballa. “He was either going to walk or he was going to get a hit. We felt like he was just missing it. It was just one of those at-bats – it must have been 10 or 12 pitches. And then Bodie came through with the big hit.”
NKW was shut-out for the rest of the game but had all the offense it needed. After Diano departed in the fifth, reliever Chris Ciarniello saw a batter reach on a dropped third strike but came back to end the inning with another strikeout.
In the sixth, Ciarniello made an error on a ground ball back to the mound, and a wild pitch moved the tying run into scoring position with nobody out. But Ciarniello struck out the next batter, induced a ground ball for the second out, and – with the tying run now on third – sealed the championship with another strikeout.
“Jack battled and pitched great,” Dino Ciarniello said. “Chris came in and closed it out. They did a great job.”
NKW finished the tournament with wins over each of the other three teams in the field, having beaten Barrington and Cranston Western on their way to the title-round matchup with Smithfield. The three wins pushed the team’s win streak to eight, with their lone loss coming in the first round of districts.
And now the ride continues.
“This is great and being able to go up to regionals is just fantastic for this team,” Ciarniello said. “We knew we had a special team when we started. We were just going to ride it. It’s been a great ride and it’s been a ton of fun. These guys have just battled through everything. We’ll take our shot at the regional and have fun with it, see what happens.”