SACO – It’s fair to say state champion Saco Little League’s journey to the New England Regional in Bristol, Conn., began years ago.

Nine of the 12 players on the team for 11- and 12-year-olds have won three straight age-group state titles. Before that many were on Coach Todd Duchaine’s 7- and 8-year-old travel baseball team.

“It feels like we’ve been meant to get here the whole time because we’ve worked so hard for it,” said Andrew DeGeorge, the team’s usual No. 5 hitter who splits time between first and the outfield.

Saco won the state title by beating Portland Bayside in consecutive games. It was the third straight year the team came out of the losers’ bracket to win.

“You get used to all the pressure and how big it is and how much it matters,” said cleanup hitter/pitcher/catcher Brogan Searle-Belanger. “We’re used to being in tough situations.”

Saco opens against Lincoln, R.I., at 2 p.m. Friday.

“Absolutely this has been a building process,” Duchaine said. “I was talking to someone at the state tournament in Augusta and they said our team was ready for this trip to Bristol. I took that as a compliment.”

The six New England state champions each play four games Friday through Wednesday. The top four teams will advance to the NESN-televised semifinals Thursday with the final at 7 p.m. Aug. 11 on ESPN.

The New England champ will go from Bristol to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series on Aug. 15-25.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about (the World Series) but it’s going to be hard,” Searle-Belanger said.

Duchaine said he gave players a packing list. Players and coaches will be in barracks-style accommodations in Bristol.

“I told the parents the next week is like sending your kid to a baseball camp,” Duchaine said. “We want them to have fun but we are down there to compete. We’ve talked to them about being athletes and respecting what that means. They’ve bought into the idea that they’re training and committed to each other.”

As 10-year-olds, Saco was 2-2 in pool play at the Eastern Regional.

“That was kind of a test run for Bristol,” Duchaine said. “We didn’t know if we were even ready. We were competitive in every game.”

Leadoff batter Timmy Smith remembers the last game.

“Our first game this year is against Rhode Island, the same Rhode Island team that beat us 8-3, so that’s going to give us more competitiveness to beat them,” Smith said.

Saco teams have been very competitive in Maine’s District 4 in recent years, but winning the state title at the 11-12 level is rare. When the town had two Little Leagues, Saco-Maremont won the 1988 state title. Saco-Old Orchard Beach won in 1958, according to www.unpage.org, a site “dedicated to providing current and historical coverage of Little League Baseball state and region tournaments.”

Three Maine teams have reached the Little League World Series: Suburban from the Portland area in 1951, Augusta in 1971 and Westbrook in 2005.

Typically a team needs to win two of its four pool games to advance. Westbrook was a rare exception, going 1-3.

History shows this Saco team will be tough to eliminate. Over the last three seasons it has lost an early-round game in five of its seven Little League tournaments. It is 21-1 in elimination games with four titles.

“Once you lose you feel like you have to win and I think you play better when the pressure’s on,” DeGeorge said.

In Little League baseball, every player must be in the field for six defensive outs and make one plate appearance in a six-inning game. That means each Saco player is likely to be in multiple pressure situations in the regional.

Matt Duchaine, Todd’s son, is one of the players who splits time and shares the Nos. 7-9 spots in the batting lineup.

“Everybody’s good under pressure,” he said. “Everybody can hit as well as anyone else.”

“This year we’re hitting home runs at the bottom of the order,” Searle-Belanger said. “You don’t see that from other teams, not in Little League.”

The pitching staff is led by the trio of Searle-Belanger, Luke Chessie and Anthony Bracamonte. Searle-Belanger is the hardest thrower, Chessie won the state title game and has the team’s best curveball, and Bracamonte “doesn’t crumble under pressure,” said Smith, who shares catching duties.

Michael Bourgault, left-hander DeGeorge and Smith also have pitched this season. Center fielder Hunter Penley, another left-hander, provides an additional option.

Saco has scored 10 or more runs in six of its 10 games this year.

Smith leads off and usually will play second, followed by Bracamonte (short/second), Chessie (short/pitcher), Searle-Belanger (catcher/pitcher), DeGeorge (first base/center field) and Penley (center field).

The bottom third is a combination of Bourgault, who also plays third, Duchaine, right fielders Landon Heidrich and Derek Madore, and left fielders Daniel McLeer and Ean Patry.

McLeer has hit three homers in his second season on the team. Heidrich and Madore are the first-year all-stars.

The assistant coaches are Ryan Chessie and James Searle-Belanger.

Matt Duchaine said he’s excited about playing on television and “it’s cool how everybody knows about our team and what we’re doing.”

But, he added, the team’s approach remains the same despite the increased exposure.

“I think we’re focused on being the best Little League we can be right now,” he said. 

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or at:

scraig@mainetoday.com