BUCKFIELD — Fielding practice began on a rare sun-drenched spring afternoon behind Buckfield High School, and the Bucks were clearly enjoying themselves.
There was a lot of chatter, only occasionally interrupted when coach Joe McLaughlin makes a point to one of the players.
"We might not win it all, but we'll have the noisiest team, that's for sure," McLaughlin said.
Buckfield has been very noisy this season, sprinting out to a 9-0 start and the top of the Western Class D Heal Point standings. It is the best start in a long time for a program that had fallen on some rough times after ranking among the best in Western D around the turn of the millennium.
Last year, the Bucks finished 7-7 with a young team that was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. With the young nucleus returning, older players maturing into team leaders, and some new additions from transfers and players returning after a year or two away from the team, they set some loftier goals for themselves in 2012.
"We have some great senior leadership this year, which was lacking last year," McLaughlin said. "We have a good balance of youth and senior leadership. Last year, we tasted some success but I think these guys were hungry for more success this year."
Seniors such as catcher/pitcher Alan Lebel, centerfielder Trevor Averill, pitcher Cody White, who leads the pitching staff with a 3-0 record, and shortstop Austin Dooley, who returned after sitting out last year, helped set a new, positive tone.
Talented sophomores Jonah Williams and Owen Bennett were the Bucks' leading hitters as freshmen last year. The lineup surrounding them has become deeper, more versatile and just plain difficult to stop. The Bucks have reached double digits in seven of their nine wins and are averaging a gaudy 10.7 runs per game
The Bucks started the season emphasizing fundamentals in each facet of the game — putting the ball in play, throwing strikes and playing solid defense, which was their Achilles' heel last year.
The key to shoring up those areas of the game and becoming a more well-rounded team has been the overall attitude of the team, what the big leaguers would call the clubhouse atmosphere.
In the past, the Bucks had the talent to compete but would usually succumb to the adversity that inevitably arises even in the short spring season. They brought lackadaisical attitudes to practice and were too quick to get down on themselves and each other.
Players credit McLaughlin with changing the culture of the team when he took over last year.
"I think I learned a lot more last year than I had the previous two years," said White, who is 3-0 on the mound. "He just brings sportsmanship and a good attitude and he wants to win just as much as the rest of us."
This year, adversity has, if anything, made the Bucks stronger.
"When somebody messes up, we don't get down on each other," White said. "We try to keep everybody positive."
"We're almost like a family," Dooley said. "When we're down, we bring ourselves back up."
Buckfield put that attitude into action when it rallied from a 5-2 deficit against Old Orchard Beach, a Class C school, with a four-run sixth inning. It held on for a 7-6 victory, its second one-run win of the season.
"I think it made us realize we can't expect to win every game, and even if we're down, we can still come back," White said.
"That's when we realized, you know, we've played in some lopsided games and we can play in the close games, too, even if we're losing in some of those," McLaughlin said.
The Bucks haven't had to come from behind very often because of a deep pitching staff led by White, Williams, Lebel and Garrett Hamann that has held the opposition to two runs or less in eight games, including two shutouts.
"This has definitely been a change for Buckfield," Lebel said. "The pitching's been great. Everyone has had great attitudes and been willing to go out and pitch."
"I feel like we have a great amount of depth," McLaughlin said. "We have four guys that can get up and start any given day, and beyond that, we have another four who I can give the ball to and feel confident that they're going to be able to throw strikes."
They've worked hard to earn that confidence, but McLaughlin is taking steps to reign his team in. A recent topic at practice was, "Five ways to ruin a successful season."
Overconfidence was one of the ways. McLaughlin stressed how humbling baseball can be.
"Just when you think everything's clicking, it balances out real quick," McLaughlin said. "One of our themes is keep keeping hungry and not being satisfied."
Lebel has been impressed by how is team has dealt with its success.
"We're handling it a lot better than we would with a lot of sports," he said. "We get winning and we get overexcited and anxious and we start losing and we get down. This year, Coach has really put it on us that we can't get overexcited or we can't get down. We've done a lot better than I've ever seen Buckfield play, just by getting ourselves back up. If we do strike out, make a bad play, an error, anything, we're back into the game. We're focused. We play harder. We play smarter."
The Bucks are smart enough to know they are still a long way from their first regional crown since 1997 and their first ever state title. Their schedule the final two weeks of the season includes a rematch with Old Orchard Beach, perennial Class D contender Rangeley and defending Class D champion Greenville, which is also unbeaten and nipping at the Bucks heels in the Heals.
Not wanting to get ahead of themselves, the Bucks insist they have tunnel vision for this weekend's doubleheader with Valley.
"We know that we have to think of the first game that we have to play rather than the next three," Lebel said. "We're just focusing on that one game at a time."
And having a lot of fun doing it.