Waterville catcher Alex Spaulding (10) right, appears to have the ball and tag in time to get Lebanon, New Hampshire’s Zach Thompson at the plate, but was called safe at the Cal Ripken 12U New England regional at Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville on Wednesday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — The run the Waterville 12U team was hoping for didn’t materialize. After hosting the 11U New England Cal Ripken tournament and finishing third, Waterville saw its encore effort fall short, coming to an end in its first elimination round game with a 5-4 loss to Lebanon, New Hampshire.

The hopes for a regional title came to a halt at Purnell Wrigley Field Wednesday evening, and an air of disappointment was tangible as the Waterville players gathered their belongings for the last time.

There wasn’t much regret, however. Regional tournaments are hard to win. And the benefits to playing in them, let alone two in a row, extend beyond the final score.

Waterville’s Alex Spaulding (10) gets a hit up the middle against Lebanon, New Hampshire in the second inning at the Cal Ripken 12U New England regional at Purnell Wrigley Field in Waterville on Wednesday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s definitely an honor,” coach Larry Brown said. “Last year we were the first local team ever to go to a regional, and then to do it two years in a row, even if you’re the host team, and represent ourselves well in the field says a lot about for these boys.”

After rallying last year, shaking off the stigma that comes with being the host team — and the automatic qualifcation it ensures — and making a run at the title, however, the players were hoping to go deep again.

“We thought that we were going to at least go pretty far,” catcher Alex Spaulding said. “We thought we were going to do it again, maybe go further this time.”

Waterville nearly did, taking a 4-2 lead over Lebanon, only for the New Hampshire representative to rally and then hang on.

“We battled. We had men on second and third, one out back in the fifth inning and we couldn’t drive him in,” Brown said. “Just a couple of small things. We tweak a couple of small things, it’s a different outcome.”

The experience, however, should pay off. Better competition makes for better teams, and for the second straight summer, Waterville got a crack at the best New England had to offer, and got to play on the bigger and brighter regional stage.

“The caliber of play at this tournament, you think about it, we’re the only (non) state champions here,” Brown said. “Each team’s got guys that can throw hard, that’ve got nasty curveballs. We don’t throw a lot of breaking balls ourselves, we don’t see a lot of breaking balls during the year. So it’s nice to come out here and see this. We’ve got to elevate our game to compete.”

The Waterville players are either at or approaching the junior high level. Varsity coach Russ Beckwith has even worked with the team on mechanics and situations, helping to groom them for the coming years. Practices have been as much about playing now as playing later.

Lebanon, New Hampshire pitcher Zach Thompson (23) gets hit by the ball on a line drive back up the middle off the bat of Waterville’s Alex Spaulding at the Cal Ripken 12U New England regional on Wednesday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“We do the same warmups the high school does, we do the same throwing drills, the same everything,” Brown said. “We try to make everything the same.”

The work has also been as much about the mental game as the physical one. Brown and his assistants consistently drilled the team on situations throughout the regular and postseasons, making sure they would know what to do in the field when fielding the ball or running the bases in a tight game.

“We give them certain situations,” assistant coach Ben Foster said. “We give them outs and people on base, and we hit the ball in certain spots and see what they’re going to do with the ball and what kind of in-play adjustments they’re going to make.”

Continued exposure against tougher teams in more pressure-packed games will help in that development.

“I like the competition,” Gage Hubbard said. “It’s going to help us a lot. It’s basically just facing faster pitchers, you have less reaction time.”

“It definitely helps with our bat speed and pitching-wise, trying to get the ball down,” Spencer Brown said. “It just helps us overall, because there are better players in the field.”

And Waterville showed it could play with them. The hosts beat Bridgeport, Connecticut 12-2 on Saturday, and while the outlook took a hit with a 19-0 loss to Massachusetts’s Ash/West and a 9-1 loss to Washington Park, Rhode Island, Wednesday showed again that they belonged.

“It’s really awesome,” Spaulding said. “It’s a really good experience, to play on this field.”

Waterville was just hoping for a longer one.

“They’ve got a bright future in baseball, they’re all good players with a good head, a good baseball mind,” coach Brown said. “I’m really looking forward to watching these guys at the next level. Hopefully I get to coach them.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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