No matter which side you take in the global warming debate, there’s no arguing that Maine is still forced to squeeze its college baseball season through the smallest window in the country.

Mud and mounds of stubborn snow didn’t stop three programs from making noise nationally last spring. The University of Southern Maine, Bowdoin College and Saint Joseph’s College all advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament, and each tip of that triangle harbors realistic hopes of a return trip in May.

On the heels of its first foray into the NCAAs after an unusual five-year drought, USM is ranked in three national polls. Baseball America slotted the Huskies at No. 4 in its preseason rankings.

All nine bats return to the starting lineup. And while there isn’t a clear top gun on the pitching staff, that experienced crew is plenty deep enough to handle the doubleheaders inherent to the state’s compressed campaign.

“I’m really fired up about the season,” said Southern Maine coach Ed Flaherty, entering his 22nd season at the helm. “I think it’s a good group. We have a lot of depth.”

Outfielder Ryan Bourque (.395, 7 HR, 53 RBIs in 2006) and shortstop Nick Vardaro (.340 in the leadoff slot) provide the leading sticks along with OF Eddie Skeffington and C Max Arsenault. Senior Pat Foley (5-0, 3.78 ERA) and sophomore Chris Burleson (6-1, 2.32) highlight a pitching staff that gets a boost from area hurlers Andrew Stacy of Fryeburg (3-0 last season), Dustin Gilbert of Turner, Josh Armandi of Jay and newcomer Brady Blackman of Auburn.

Bowdoin banged out a record 27 victories en route to its initial Division III playoff appearance. Leading the charge to an encore is senior infielder Chris McCann, who notched Polar Bear records with 66 hits and 28 stolen bases last season.

The Polar Bears are strong up the middle with help from catcher Mike Buckley of Readfield and shortstop Nick Lawler of Auburn. The brother tandem of Tyler and Ryan Turgeon, formerly of St. Dominic Regional High School, strengthens a veteran pitching staff.

Showing no loss of momentum after its 34-10-1 campaign of 2006, St. Joe’s exploded from the gate with seven straight wins on its season-opening southern trip. Juniors Andrew Ward, Luke Enman, Keil Martin and Dustin Spiller lead the Monks’ hit parade along with senior Mark Clapp. Ward, a catcher and first baseman, was 15-for-26 in Florida, while OF Enman is swatting a lofty .533 with two homers and 10 RBIs.

Seven different pitchers started and won for St. Joe’s during its week in the sun, including seniors Ben Cutter and Sam Tupper.

Bates (13-21) and the University of Maine at Farmington (7-19) should be vastly improved.

Brian Mahoney (.372, 23 RBIs) and Erik Hood (.370, 3 HR, 28 RBIs) return as juniors after enjoying the most prolific hitting seasons in Bobcats history. Mahoney set a school record with 48 hits, while Hood also eclipsed the previous mark with 44. Ben Shwartz (3-2), Griffin Finan (2-4) and Sean VanderVliet (2-5) lead a Bates rotation that returns virtually intact.

Rumford’s Corey Provencher is a two-time all-North Atlantic Conference outfielder for Farmington, which lost five league games by one run a year ago. Peter McLaughlin (.317) is a four-year starter at first base, while Aaron Wolfe of Wilton (.309) is back for his third go-round as a starting outfielder.

Filling out the lineup card at Husson once again is the venerable John Winkin, who turns 87 this year. Winkin topped the 1,000-win mark for his career last spring and is believed to be the oldest NCAA coach in the country in any sport.

Pitching should be the Braves’ strong suit, with James Gray and Anthony DeRosa (both 6-1 in 2006) setting the pace. Lisbon’s Jon Tefft (1-2, 4 saves) is the closer and also brings experience to the outfield.


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