After weathering a difficult early schedule, Gray-New Gloucester got hot during the recent rainy stretch and is on the verge of emerging from the loaded Western Maine Conference as a tournament team.
The Patriots (9-6) are riding a six-game winning streak with one game remaining on the docket. They started the season against the iron of the WMC, facing top-ranked Greely twice as well as Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth, Falmouth and York, all either certainly headed to the postseason or likely to be there.
They have another big game next Wednesday against York. The two teams were ranked No. 7 and No. 8, respectively, in the Western B Heals heading into Friday’s action. The top seven teams in the region get a first-round bye, so the winner of that game could secure a bye into the quarterfinals while the loser could be forced to play a preliminary game.
Gray-New Gloucester coach Nolan Beckwith said his team knows what’s at stake on the last day of the regular season.
“When setting our team goals, we wanted to set ourselves up as best as possible for a playoff run,” said Beckwith, whose team earned the seventh seed last year and lost a tight game in the quarterfinals to No. 2 Yarmouth. “With one more win we could do just that.”
One of the biggest keys to the streak has been the emergence of sophomore pitcher Kyle Nielsen, who started the season in the bullpen. After picking up the win with three scoreless innings of relief in an eight-inning, 8-4 win over York, Beckwith moved Nielsen to the starting rotation.
He is 4-0 in his new role, including Thursday’s 7-4 win over tournament-bound Wells. He scattered six hits over six innings, giving up two runs and no walks while fanning six to improve to 6-0 overall on the season.
“He has been better with every start,” Beckwith said. “He has worked very hard on his game and wants the ball any time he can get it. The kid just loves to pitch and isn’t afraid of big spots.”
Blue print for success
Prior to Friday’s 3-1 loss to top-ranked Bangor, Mt. Blue had won seven straight. The two biggest factors in the run are Cougar pitchers aren’t putting runners on base, and neither is the defense.
Through the first 12 games, Mt. Blue pitchers were holding hitters to a .180 batting average and had struck out 95 and walked 53. That’s nearly a 2/1 ratio, which is rare in high school baseball.
One reason they are throwing strikes is because of their confidence in their fielding. The Cougars had only 12 errors heading into Friday.
“That’s how you do it right there,” Mt. Blue coach Dan Stefanilo said. “It’s how you put pitching and defense together.”
Jimmy Neal and Blake Hart have anchored the pitching staff, both posting 4-0 records, while Dylan Vining has bounced back from arm trouble to contribute to the starting rotation. Bradley Jackson has been one of the KVAC’s best closers, posting five saves.
The offense has been steady, particularly since Stefanilo dropped Neal down from the leadoff spot to third in the order in the win over Mt. Ararat that sparked the streak. The Cougars (10-4) haven’t missed a beat at the top of the lineup since the move. Clint Lowe and Vining are getting on base over 40 percent of the time in the first two spots. Freshman catcher Andrew Pratt has been one of the top run producers in the middle of the order, hitting over .350.
The final few days of the regular season will offer some tasty fare for high school baseball fans hungry for playoff-caliber matchups. The KVAC slate features Lewiston hosting two playoff contenders, Erskine on Monday and Brewer on Tuesday. Edward Little has a Memorial Day clash with Bangor at Pettengill Park on Monday. Mt. Blue hosts Cony on Tuesday.
In Western B, Gray-New Gloucester hosts York on Wednesday in a game that could decide whether one of those teams will have to play a prelim to reach the tournament. Maranacook and Oak Hill could be battling for the ninth and final playoff spot when they meet in Readfield on Tuesday. Leavitt, ranked right behind Oak Hill in Friday’s Heals, will likely need a win when it heads to Gardiner on Tuesday if it hopes to make the playoffs.
The highlight of the Western C schedule, and one of the most anticipated games of the year, is Monday’s game between Dirigo and St. Dom’s in Auburn. Those were the top two teams in the region as of Friday, and the game could be a preview of the Mountain Valley Conference championship.
The regular season ends Wednesday, with the preliminary round scheduled for Tuesday, June 7.