NORTH KINGSTOWN — In the second year since the town’s two Little Leagues merged, North Kingstown/Wickford has its first district championship.
Courtesy of the same group that nearly captured a title in year one.
The NKW 11-year-old all-stars, runners-up last year, beat Warwick Continental American in back-to-back title round games this time, winning 7-3 on Thursday and 3-2 on Saturday night at Wilson Park to claim the District 3 championship.
“We were so close last year,” manager Dino Ciarniello said. “We came back from that with basically the same group. To come back and complete it and win it this year – just an incredible win.”
In addition to being the first major entry in NKW’s history books, the championship is the first for any North Kingstown squad since the pre-merger 2016 Wickford Little League Junior Division all-stars won districts. At the traditional Little League age groups, it had been six years, since a run to the state finals by the Wickford 11s.
“Just so proud of them and so proud for the league that we could win it,” Ciarniello said. “First win since the merger, and the first one for Wickford or North Kingstown in a while.”
The journey to the title was also long. NKW lost its first game by a 9-2 score, to the same WCA team it lost to in last year’s finals, the same squad that would await in this year’s title round. NKW proceeded to win three straight games in the losers bracket to earn a second chance. The 7-3 victory on WCA’s home field made it four wins in a row and set up the winner-take-all championship.
It was the same exact scenario last year, when NKW forced a decisive championship game but came up short. This time, the stars built a 3-0 lead in the third inning and held on from there behind the strong pitching of Jack Diano and steady defense behind him.
“Certainly, we felt like that kind of win would give us confidence,” Ciarniello said. “Like they say, you’re only as good as your next starting pitcher, and Jack was just phenomenal. He was great.”
Diano struck out 10 and didn’t allow an earned run. He also kept his pitch count low, which allowed him to work into the sixth inning. Brandon Venditto came on for the final out.
“It feels great,” Diano said. “It’s nice holding the banner. We had a good game, only let up two runs.”
NKW capitalized on opportunities in its big third inning. Bodie Forsell reached on an error and Jacob Hamilton legged out an infield hit. A dropped fly ball in center field allowed Forsell to score, before Hamilton raced in on a passed ball. An RBI groundout by Chris Ciarniello plated Diano with the third run.
“We played good D for most of the game and we put some runs across when we needed it,” Ciarniello said.
WCA put together a similar rally in the bottom of the third, starting things with a walk and an error. Gabe Politelli scored on a double steal and Charlie Brown touched home on a base hit by Mason Broomfield. But Diano stopped the comeback there, striking out Nick Stevens to end the inning, leaving Broomfield stranded at first base.
Michael Blair led off the fourth inning with a single, but it would be WCA’s last hit of the game. Diano struck out the next three batters, then worked a perfect fifth against the top of the WCA batting order. In the sixth, he struck out the first two batters he faced before hitting the pitch count limit.
An error allowed Braydon Fagundes to reach, but Venditto finished off the win with a strikeout.
A year after watching WCA celebrate on the same field, it was NKW’s turn.
“I’m just so proud of them,” Ciarniello said. “To come out of the losers bracket, win five in a row – just super proud of the kids. We did it.”
Team members are Venditto, Diano, Forsell, Hamilton, Chris Ciarniello, Nick Martucci, Jay Pelletier, Gabe Saballa, Ethan Schmitt, Matt Harrison, Jack McGuirl, Daniel Napoli and Jake Gaccione.
The championship sends NKW into the state tournament, which will be hosted by Smithfield Little League at Deerfield Park. Action in the four-team, double-elimination bracket begins Saturday, with NKW taking on District 2 champion Barrington at 1:30 p.m. Cranston Western and Smithfield meet in the other game at 11 a.m.