Bessey Motors catcher Wyatt Williamson tags out Locke Mills’ Josh Eliot while Zachary Hill looks on during an American Legion baseball doubleheader in Paris last year. (Sun Journal file photo)
New teams and old faces will be gracing diamonds all over Zone 2 this summer as American Legion baseball gets underway.
Last season’s zone champion Bessey Motors returns the majority of its 2017 team and will be attempting to shake off Oxford Hills’ 2018 high school playoff loss to Bangor just a week ago. Head coach Shane Slicer is eager to get back on the field to turn the team’s focus to a new goal.
“I think it’s awesome,” Slicer said. “We had a tough loss but all of a sudden we have a brand new season. It might be a little low for a few games, but we are playing for something brand new. We can get over the tough time of the spring. They’re still working out so they’re getting better and better. I love the fact that you can lose and then you’re starting new.”
Bouncing back from a walk-off grand slam will be tough, but what might be tougher will be Bessey’s schedule, which features eight games in nine days. The grind of a game almost every day, paired with the fact that Bessey only draws players from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School makes the summer that much harder.
Slicer believes managing pitchers will be the key to Bessey Motors’ success.
“Our schedule is brutal, but you hope that the competitive nature of the team helps,” Slicer said. “I think we can compete, but I don’t know if we have enough arms. We are going to throw kids out there that don’t usually pitch, or they pitch and find a diamond in the rough. … You get games where you’re going to throw kids out that you don’t have confidence in because you haven’t seen them, but you never know when they’re going to surprise you.”
While the defending champs only field players from one school, a new team is joining the Zone 2 mix, called the Capitals, who draws kids from Gardiner, Erskine and Lincoln Academy.
The Augusta team will also be drawing from Class C state champion Hall-Dale High School and Maranacook High School, which lost to Hall-Dale in this year’s Class C South regional final.
Zone 2 will also have the usual suspects of Pastime and Rogers Post. Pastime, which draws mostly from Lewiston, returns many from its playoff team a year ago.
“I like the team we have, and I think we have a good amount of kids coming back,” Pastime head coach Jake Brown said. “We lose Gage Cote, which is big, but everyone else is back. I think it’s a competitive league and I think it’s gonna depend on who gets hot with the bats at the right time.”
While Pastime returns big bats from veterans such as Brock Belanger, Lucas Francis and St. Joseph’s player Hunter Richardson, pitching will be crucial to Lewiston’s success. Led by Hunter Landry, Owen and Evan Cox, Pastime, like everyone else, will be tested by the short season as coaches are juggling innings, pitch counts and the players’ schedules.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you who our ace is right now,” Brown said. “I think a lot of those guys could be solid and have the talent to be an ace. It’ll be about using them in different roles — starters or relief guys, closer roles, especially in different spots. Find roles for them. If it’s a close game, they have to feel comfortable with the spot we put them in.”
Another team that has to manage its players closely is Rogers Post, the Auburn squad, which also has players from Poland, Leavitt and St. Dom’s.
Rogers returns many starters from a year ago, including Gavin Bates, formerly of St. Dom’s, who has spent the past two seasons at Kents Hill and will be playing baseball for the University of Dayton next spring.
Rogers also adds Tim Albert and Oren Shaw of Leavitt Area High School this season, as well as Gawain Tibbetts of Poland Regional High School, to help add some more power around KVAC Baseball Player of the Year Grant Hartley of Edward Little.
“Summer ball goes back to schedules,” Rogers head coach Dave Jordan said. “The number one thing for us is to get through the summer enjoying baseball but also managing arms and not getting overused. When we aren’t able to use some more known arms, that’s an opportunity for some younger guys to pitch who did tremendously this spring season.”
Jordan is leading a powerful Auburn team as it tries to break into the playoffs this season after missing out a year ago. Zone 2 will get three entries this year, and with Pastime and Bessey returning many important pieces, it looks like the usual suspects once again. However, Jordan is not overlooking the Capitals and Augusta, as there isn’t much of a scouting report on those teams with primarily Class C players.
“Capitals sound like they’re going to be a pretty good team, and Augusta takes from four teams including Hall-Dale, who just won a state championship,” Jordan said. “I would say Pastime and Bessey are always going to be very strong. I think we can put out a very competitive team every day. We don’t play these Class C teams so we don’t have the book. We read the paper, but we don’t really know who is playing for them.”
Another local team, Franklin, is looking to get better with each game that passes this summer.
“It’s baseball at the end of the day, and if you can keep their runs down and minimize mistakes you can be in games that you shouldn’t be in,” Franklin head coach Kyle Gunzinger said. “Our main goal is have the kids be better baseball players at the end than at the beginning of the season.”
Franklin draws from many different areas including Spruce Mountain High School and Rangeley, making it one of the toughest commutes for any team trying to get together to practice or play a game. While worried about turnout numbers, Gunzinger still has some promising players for the season.
“In terms of our kids, we have a couple college kids coming back,” Gunzinger said. “Our catcher is back, Ethan Andrews, he’s very good. Nate Goodine is back from the University of Maine at Farmington, we have a decent number of kids that can pitch.”
Locke Mills is gearing up for a run of its own this summer. While only returning a handful of players, head coach Todd Wheeler is confident in his group.
“I think we can compete,” Wheeler said. “We had a very similar team the last year I coached Junior Legion. It took us half the year to get it together, then we swept states and went to Rhode Island. I told them we have to mesh and stay together and we have the talent to get to the state tournament this year, without a doubt.”
Locke Mills will be led by the coach’s son, Tanner Wheeler, who just finished his first year at Central Maine Community College, and also by pitchers Ethan Laubauskas and Garrett Garbarini of Mountain Valley High School. Todd Wheeler is also gaining Charlie Morton, a 16-year-old left-hander from the Oxford Hills area who played year-round baseball in Florida this past year.
“He’s young, but he has a lot of talent and can help us,” Wheeler said. “… I think we can compete with Pastime, we were missing a few kids, I think Bessey will be very strong, but I think we can compete with them as well.”
Overall, the season should be tight until the end, with teams attempting to outlast the others with strength, durability and pitching.
“I think when you look at the zone, the team that wins the regular season either had a really good schedule or they’re the toughest team,” Slicer said. “I like the way it’s set up.”
Rogers Post 153 third baseman Gavin Bates, left, stops a low throw as Pastime Club’s Gage Cote slides into third safely during the teams’ American Legion baseball doubleheader at Pettengill Park in Auburn last year. (Sun Journal file photo)Pastime Club pitcher Hunter Richardson fires a pitch against Rogers Post 153 during the teams’ American Legion baseball doubleheader at Pettengill Park in Auburn last year. (Sun Journal file photo)Post 153 first baseman Grant Hartley lunges for a foul ball to record an out during an American Legion baseball game against Locke Mills at Auburn Suburban last year. (Sun Journal file photo)