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The Rhode Island Sea Dogs show off their hardware after winning the regional championship.

The organizers of the Rhode Island Sea Dogs AAU baseball team took a unique approach to building their team. They designed a stand-alone squad instead of a larger program with several age-group teams. They held a tryout when the players were 9 years old then never staged another one. They kept most of the group together for years.

That journey culminated with a championship last month.

The Sea Dogs won the title in the 14U bracket of the New England AAU Rhode Island/Connecticut playoffs. With the group set to move on to different high schools this year, it was a perfect ending.

“We kept these kids together every year since they were 9 and every year, you could tell they were getting a little bit better,” head coach Jim Butera said. “We had a couple of losing seasons but the kids hung in there. We lost very few kids over the years and we added a few, but we had kind of the same core group. They’ve been getting better year in and year out.”

The team has players from North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Warwick and Coventry. They all came together five years ago based on the idea of coming together – and staying together. In an era of highly competitive AAU programs with tryouts every year and a changing cast of players, the goal was to be a little different.

“The coaches and I, we wanted to be able to have kids in the community play in the New England AAU league, but we didn’t like the super-competitive nature of how the teams were structured,” Butera said. “We really wanted to think more about taking a group of kids and trying as the years go on to improve their skills.”

Operating as an independent team, the Sea Dogs held winter workouts and played the same kind of season as the bigger programs. After some struggles in the early years, the team did, in fact, improve.

“This year, I kind of felt like the kids had gotten to a point where they were very, very good,” Butera said. “We had some kids who really came into their own. And they all loved playing baseball.”

They weren’t sure they would be back on the field this year as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic canceled spring baseball seasons. New England AAU was able to put together a modified summer season, with brackets divided by region. The Sea Dogs had a strong regular season and ended up as the No. 1 seed for the 14U playoffs. They beat the Ocean State Outlaws and the Connecticut Mustangs in playoff pool play, then beat the Rhode Island River Dogs 6-0 in the semifinals. In the title game, they topped a different Outlaws team 8-4 to capture the championship.

“We were fortunate in that we played a very good regular season,” Butera said. “We were the number one seed, so that made the path a little bit easier. Beyond that, I think it was the character of the kids and the fact that they knew this was the end of the Sea Dogs. I think they played like that. They realized they had something special.”

Chemistry developed over the years of playing together also seemed to have an impact. They were a fun-loving group, on and off the field. In one of the playoff games, they started a game of tic-tac-toe with the other team during a rain delay, tossing a baseball back and forth between dugouts.

“They were in a competitive playoff game but they still wanted to engage the other team like kids do. In my mind, that kind of summarized the group as a whole. They just loved to be out there,” Butera said. “You can hear it on the field, how they would talk to each other. Our kids are always very positive with each other. Every kid felt valued on that team, felt like they had a role and felt they had the support of every other player. In baseball – in any sport – that’s so important. A lot of it has to do with the time, just knowing each other for so long. And also the quality of the families who supported the team and the idea.”

Team members are Levi Burdon, Christian Butera, William Cavanagh, Logan Downey, Ryan Fay, Blake Lukens, Hank Martin, Mike Mita, Ben Napoli, Braxton Pearson, Ryan Sheeran, William Singer, Jack Smith and Cade Thomas. Coaches are Jim Butera, Bob Downey and Mark Fay.

While the players will move on to different high schools, many will stay together under a new AAU banner with the Ocean State Makos.

“The Makos I think they recognized we had a special group of players and they were gracious enough to keep many of the kids together in a different uniform,” Butera said. “I’m glad they get to stay together.”

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