To the average Rhode Island sports fan, the name Dave Belisle conjures up images of the Mount St. Charles boys’ hockey team.
Since Dave’s father, Bill, became the head coach, the Mounties have won 32 Division I state championships, including a national record string of 26 in a row. Dave Belisle has been his father’s assistant for 35 years, but now the younger Belisle’s name is known nation-wide – and not because of anything he accomplished on a rink.
As the head coach of the Cumberland Americans, his name -- as well as his team -- are revered for the image they created during the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The story within the story was the off-the-cuff speech Dave Belisle gave to his players after they lost, 8-7, to the Jackie Robinson West team of Chicago, following an elimination-round game. The latter part of that speech is what struck a chord not only to those who heard it live on ESPN but also those who heard it on YouTube (the morning after Cumberland’s last game, the clip had more than 350,000 views).
“The only reason why I’ll probably end up shedding a tear is that this is the last time I’m going to coach you guys,” Belisle said in his postgame speech. “But I’m going to bring back with me, the coaching staff is going to bring back, you guys are going to bring back what no other team can provide -- that’s pride. Pride.”
Now, Belisle and his team have returned home as heroes. They were given a parade in their honor on Friday. And, while the hoopla of Williamsport is behind them, the memory of their inspirational run and the spirit of their leader endure.
“There’s nothing I can compare it with in terms of magnitude – the magnitude of what these kids accomplished at such a young age,” Belisle told ESPN Boston this week. “Nothing compares with this because I always had my dad on the bench. He was the guy. Now I was the guy. I know when my dad told me he was proud of me as an assistant I realized it was because when you’re the head guy you have so much more to do.”
He continued, “I’ve never had a prouder moment than when I went to the World Series, not for their wins but because how they captivated an audience for their effort. That’s what my dad preached, as long as they give you effort that’s all you can ask for.”
Given the Cumberland Americans’ penchant for rallying and overcoming deficits, their effort should be underscored.
“My team provided me what my dad taught me -- effort,” said Belisle. “We’re not going to be recognized for wins and losses. We were recognized for their grit and fight. This was my proudest moment because my team was recognized for its effort on the biggest stage.”
What made Belisle’s accomplishments noteworthy, winning state and New England Regional championships, plus making a big splash at the World Series, is that instead of coaching hockey players in their mid-to-late teens, he was coaching 12- and 13-year-old boys.
“Obviously, you have to be more delicate with younger boys because they’re not ready to handle that pressure,” he said. “They need more stroking. You have to be careful with 12s and 13s because they’re not mature enough to understand you’re trying to push them toward something they want.”
That, in change, requires a delicate guiding touch.
“You have to be a mother and father figure,” Belisle said. “You can’t push the envelope too much with young kids or you’ll lose them. They’re not ready for that physical and mental challenge.
“Negativity coming into play won’t work. With a teenager you can be tougher and they expect more because they know what they want. Teenagers set their own goals. My kids aren’t mature enough to make their own goals. I’ve got to continually work with them to achieve small goals while achieving larger goals at the end. They need more positive attention at that age.”
To say Belisle derived satisfaction from what the Cumberland Americans accomplished -- from annexing the state title to coming within a couple of runs of competing for the U.S. championship -- would be a massive understatement.
“I thought we were going to win against (Jackie Robinson West),” Belisle said. “When we didn’t, we still won the game because they fought. I liked them because of their resiliency. It’s nice to be the best but to go out and prove it isn’t easy. But they went out and did it.”
What Belisle won’t do any more is coach Little League, concluding a 16-year run.
“I love the age and the innocence,” he said. “I’m going to miss the whole volunteer thing about Little League. At the age of 12 and 13, that’s when youth sports end. Everything else becomes magnified.
“You’re coaching against people you know and respect, plus the kids who are friends of your kids. There shouldn’t be any pressure in coaching Little League baseball. It should be fun.”
That –-- more than anything -- is Belisle’s credo. And, for a few days in August, it was on display for the entire world.
“Little League baseball is going to be in my heart forever,” Belisle said. “It’s going to keep me young. If anything, Little League is going to keep that youth and positive attitude in my heart. Little League reminds me of everything that’s positive in sports.”
Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey, plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y. he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.