GORHAM — Andrew Richards wanted to describe how in sync he and his fellow University of Southern Maine pitchers are with senior catcher Matt Verrier when they are looking in for a sign.
Verrier was standing within earshot and called out the Huskies’ rubber-armed reliever when he exaggerated his point just a bit.
“I haven’t shaken him off once this year,” Richards said.
“Yeah you have,” Verrier said.
“Once?” asked Richards. “Just once, right?”
“A couple of times,” the catcher replied with a smile.
Richards protested, “No.”
“Yeah, twice in a row. And then they got a hit,” Verrier said.
Richards relented and rephrased his point.
“OK. So don’t shake him off is what I’m trying to say,” he said.
When the Huskies met on Monday, the first time since winning the New England regional to clinch their second consecutive trip to the Division III College World Series, Verrier was within earshot again when head coach Ed Flaherty heaped more praise on him.
“I said, ‘You know what Matt does? Without Matt, we’re nowhere,'” said Flaherty, now in his 29th year at USM. “‘Without a catcher here like Matt, we can’t operate on the level we operate on.'”
Verrier’s responsibilities as a catcher — calling every pitch, communicating on bunts, relays and other defensive plays, controlling the opposition’s running game — in addition to his presence in the lineup as the Huskies’ top power threat, are why Flaherty nominated him for Little East Conference Player of the Year.
Flaherty said it was a fairly easy decision, even though other players such as senior outfielder Forrest Chadwick had better seasons statistically.
“He’s got the biggest plate, so to speak, of all of the kids on our team,” Flaherty said. “And he’s handled it with such professionalism and toughness.”
Verrier said he and his teammates relish the free reign the coaches give them between the lines, and the responsibilities that go with it.
“Coach has said he wants the game to be in the players’ hands,” he said. “I think that means a lot to us because we’re not just relaying signs from the dugout, putting it down and see what happens. It’s up to us to read hitters. It’s up to fielders to read hitters. It just makes us play more as a unit, I think.”
Verrier put more on his offensive plate this year in hopes of picking up the slack left by the graduation of several key starters from last year’s national runner-up squad.
He cut back on swinging for the fences and focused more on just making solid contact. The result is a team-high eight home runs, double last year’s output, and a .547 slugging percentage, second on the team.
“He’s making good contact more often,” Flaherty said. “He’s got some hitting maturity about him now. He’ll hit a mistake out of the park.”
“I’ve played a lot of baseball. This is my third year here now, three years of summer ball (in the New England Collegiate Baseball League and Twilight League). I think I’ve matured,” said Verrier, who is hitting .323 in the middle of Flaherty’s lineup. “I kind of knew what was getting me out before and I just tried to stay away from that, trying to get fastballs and get in good counts all year.”
Verrier, who capped a remarkable four-year career at Oxford Hills in 2010 with a state title and a John Winkin Award as the state’s top baseball player, has taken some time to reflect on his college career of late.
He started at the University of Maine, committing to the school when he was still a junior in high school. He saw limited playing time his freshman year in Orono. He didn’t foresee more regular opportunities coming in subsequent years and worried his development as a player and person would suffer, so he transferred to USM.
He started right away for Flaherty as a sophomore, then developed into an all-LEC selection last year, helping to lead the Huskies to the World Series.
After picking up more LEC honors and a criminology degree this spring, Verrier has no regrets.
“It’s been great,” Verrier said. “It’s been nothing but winning. We’ve had three regional appearances. This will be my second World Series. It’s been unbelievable to play for coach Flaherty and all of the rest of the coaching staff. I think it’s what I needed, for me as a person and a student, as well. I think it was the best decision I ever made as far as where I wanted my life to go.”
Richards and the rest of the USM pitching staff aren’t eager to shake Verrier off any time soon.
“He’s the best catcher I’ve ever had, if not the best catcher in the nation,” said the junior from South Portland. “It’s so easy to pitch when you have a guy behind the plate that you know is going to block everything. He’s one of our leaders on the field. There’s nothing like having him as a catcher and a leader, especially as a pitcher.”
That’s no exaggeration.