WATERVILLE — The Waterville Cal Ripken 12U All-Star team’s regional tournament hadn’t yet begun. But the hosts had already started to gain a rather sizeable chip on their collective shoulder.

“You think about it, we’re the only team that’s not a state champion that’s here,” coach Larry Brown said. “We’re the host team, so nobody expects anything from us. I’m hoping we can surprise teams like we did last year.”

Indeed, there’s precedent here. For the second straight year, Waterville is hosting the New England regionals at Purnell Wrigley Field. That means the team had an automatic berth and didn’t have to win to qualify — and that Waterville will face a field of teams that did have to win state tournaments to get in.

If you want to take the hosts lightly, however, go ahead. Waterville is more than comfortable playing the underdog.

“That’s how we play our whole lives,” said Brown, whose team began pool play against Connecticut’s Bridgeport Caribe Saturday afternoon. “We’ve been the underdog in every tournament we’ve played in.”

Waterville certainly was last year. And if there were any snickers and scoffs around the premises, the players and coaches in the purple and black uniforms heard them.

“People said ‘Oh, we’re just a home team, we’re just hosting it so we really shouldn’t be in it,’ ” third baseman Wyatt Gradie said. “I think it gave the whole team motivation.”

That motivation translated on the field. Waterville beat the representatives from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts, then beat New Hampshire to move on to the semifinals. The run ended against Brunswick in the semifinals, but the team expected to be an easy out had instead taken third place.

“Since everybody didn’t think we were really going to make it that far, it sort of … lowered our self-esteem a little bit,” said Gage Hubbard, Saturday’s starting pitcher. “But as we went on, we kept winning, that boosted everybody’s confidence. We just kept going from there.”

“They’re memories that those kids won’t forget,” Brown said. “I won’t forget them as a coach.”

And yet, Waterville will have a chance to build on them. The team brought back 10 of the 12 players from last year’s team, with new players Dustan Hunter and J.T. Trentholm fitting into a cohesive mix, and the players are eager for another run after seeing just what they were capable of a season ago.

“I think we’re pretty confident, since last year’s experience has given us a lot of motivation,” Gradie said. “We think we can do the same thing we did last year and try to win it.”

Waterville remains every bit the underdog, however, for reasons that go beyond their status as a host team. Waterville doesn’t draw from as many communities as the other teams in the field and had only 15 players come out to try to make what became a 12-player roster.

“For us to be able to come to this level and compete is pretty incredible,” Brown said. “To see these kids just from Waterville, most of these teams we’re playing against have eight or nine communities there to choose from, or five or six or something. We choose from two teams. That’s how we make our All-Star team.”

So Waterville finds a way, wherever it can, to make up the gap. The 12Us bunt. They take extra bases. They force opponents to try risky throws, and to make risky plays.

“We scratch, we claw, we’re not going to score 15 runs a game. We’re going to play small ball,” Brown said. “And the kids just do everything we ask them to.”

It was the formula for some surprising success last year, and the goal is for it to be again this time. Waterville has pool play against Washington Park (Rhode Island), Bridgeport (Connecticut) and Ash/West (Western Massachusetts) to get through, and then will head to the elimination round.

Hopefully to make more memories.

“The goal all season long is to peak at the right time. And last year we did,” Brown said. “We’ll find out … if we did again this year.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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