Winning isn’t just a goal for the Casali’s Liquors softball team. With a core of players who have won big at every step of their baseball and softball journeys – including baseball state championships at Cranston West – winning is an expectation.
“We have our fun,” said Matt Fontaine. “But the experience we have with winning drives us to compete.”
And this summer, it drove them all the way to a national championship. The Cranston-based team traveled to Sterling, Va., at the end of August, and after a wild ride, came home with the Amateur Softball Association of America E Division Eastern National Championship. Casali’s had to win seven games in a row to capture the title.
“We knew we had a good team,” said Fontaine, who plays third base. “We knew if we played our kind of softball, we could win it. There really wasn’t anybody who could beat us if we were playing our style and playing our best.”
That proved to be true.
The championship victory was a big next step for a team that has been building itself into a powerhouse in recent years. Led by player/manager Tom Casali Jr., the squad has played well in league action at the Atwood Avenue field and won back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011.
And long before that, there were the baseball roots.
Fontaine, James Clarke, Joe Donahue, Mike Casali and Ryan Raleigh were all key members of the 2006 Cranston West baseball team. Those Falcons delivered a magical ride through the state tournament and captured the school’s first Division I state baseball championship in more than 30 years. Donahue and Raleigh were also on the 2007 team that gave West a second consecutive championship.
The Casali’s softball team was founded soon after. Several of the players who would make up the core were playing college baseball at the time, but when those careers ended, softball took over. Along the way, the former Falcons picked up friends from Warwick and Johnston and a solid team was born.
A goal was born too.
“When we realized that we had a really good team and we could accomplish something, then the competitiveness took over,” Fontaine said.
Casali’s won the consecutive state titles and made its first foray into national competition in 2010. It went 1-2 that year. Last summer, Casali’s was back at it and finished fifth. Though the team is younger and less experienced in softball than a lot of its competition, there was no doubt that Casali’s could compete at the highest level.
This year, they set out to do it but learned quickly that it wouldn’t be easy. The bracket at nationals is determined by blind draw and Casali’s didn’t catch any breaks. With 34 teams in the field for a 32-team bracket, four teams had to play an extra game, and Casali’s was one of them. The team survived that game and then won two more before dropping an 8-7 heartbreaker.
That sent Casali’s into the losers’ bracket and set up a long road. Casali’s would have to win seven consecutive games – all in one day – to capture the title.
“It’s a cliché but we really took it one game at a time,” Fontaine said.
And it worked.
At 9:30 a.m., on Sunday, Sept. 2, Casali’s took the field and won 14-4. Seven hours and four more wins later, Casali’s was in the championship, but still needed two wins to take the title. And even for a young team, it had been a long day.
“It does wear on you,” Fontaine said. “But we knew we had a team that could do it. We said, ‘We’ve already won five in a row. We can’t do this to lose now.’”
In the finals, Casali’s went up against Storm from Gordonsville, Penn., the team it had lost to in the winners’ bracket. But despite the tough match-up, the Cranston squad picked up right where it left off, winning 9-5 to force a winner-take-all championship game.
With six games worth of momentum, Casali’s wasn’t stopping there. It won the title game 14-7 to finish off the magical run.
“It was surreal,” Fontaine said. “It was like all the effort, all the fundraising came down to this. A lot of us play on a couple of different teams and guys are always talking about being a couple of wins away from a national championship. To go out and win it in our third year was just amazing.”
Zach DiMezza pitched every game for Casali’s, while John Amore led the offense with a .787 batting average. Amore was named the tournament MVP.
In addition to DiMezza, Amore, Fontaine, Clarke, Donahue, Raleigh and Mike Casali, the team was led by Phil Butler, Tommy Franco, Anthony Dupre, Tom Casali Jr. and Dan Marland. Gyorgy Arany, Al Skoropa and Devin Richards did not make the trip to Virginia but were key parts of the team all summer.
“Everyone did it together,” Fontaine said. “We moved runners along, we got the big hits. And our defense is what takes us to another level. We really played well.”
Two other Cranston teams – Atwood Wine & Spirits and Twin Oaks – also made the trip to Virginia and had success. Atwood finished fourth after losing to Casali’s in the losers’ bracket. Twin Oaks went 3-2 before bowing out.
For Casali’s, the championship was an exclamation point on the summer, but also a beginning. The team will automatically bump up to the D level next year, and the players are already thinking big. If Casali’s can win another Eastern National Championship at that level, it would qualify for the overall ASA National Championship tournament in Oklahoma City.
“We’re hoping to be there next year,” Fontaine said. “That’s the plan.”