Starting an American Legion baseball program in Maine’s Zone 3 is a little bit like launching a burger joint and hoping to stand spatula-to-spatula with McDonald’s or Burger King.

Central among the five, oddly shaped slices of the Legion pie, the division is stuffed with the ingredients diamond devotees have learned to expect come state tournament time.

There’s Bessey Motors of Oxford Hills, Rogers Post 153 (formerly New Auburn) and Gayton Post 31 (primarily Lewiston). The occasional interloper such as Smith-Tobey or Cole Farms may stick its nose into the fray, but by and large Zone 3 is the exclusive domain of a Big Three.
So why start a program from scratch or beat the bushes in order to keep a long-suffering one afloat?

For Andy Valley coach Wendell Strout and Dixfield manager Todd Fenstermacher, the sole motivation is a long-standing love of the game, even as that game frequently takes a back seat to 7-on-7 football, AAU basketball, summer employment and college visits.

“I was fortunate to have a father who cared enough to approach the Legion post and get a team started when I was that age, so I was able to play from age 14 to 19. That was in addition to city hardball and winning a Pennsylvania state championship at a high school of 4,500 students,” Fenstermacher said. “I wanted to return to this community what was given to me. Part of my father’s estate was given to me if it was possible to start a Legion team in the Dixfield area.”

The task is daunting for many reasons.

With the exception of two Mountain Valley High School players eligible for the team because they live in Peru, Dixfield draws the remainder of its 15-man roster from Class C Dirigo High School.

Dirigo’s student enrollment of a shade over 300 pales by comparison to the 1,500-plus of Oxford Hills and Fryeburg Academy that funnel into Bessey’s ranks.

Similar small-town programs in Rumford and Bethel have struggled to stay in the league for years. The Bethel/Locke Mills enterprise currently is dormant. And Dixfield’s drawing area was further diminished when Rumford resurrected its program last season.

Multiple forfeits and a few one-sided losses characterized Dixfield’s inaugural season, but Fenstermacher believes a subtle change in philosophy already has paid dividends. The proof is in the early-season standings, where Dixfield sits at .500 after playing well in a 5-1 loss to Rogers and thrashing Cole Farms, 14-4, in a game shortened by the mercy rule.

“We’ve tried to separate things a little bit. There might be an expectation of ‘If you don’t play Legion, you can’t play high school.’ Not saying that coaches do that,” Fenstermacher said with a knowing laugh. “We’ve tried to approach this as a community team, open to anybody who wanted to try out. And in fact we have a couple of fellas back who haven’t played high school or Legion but who did play Little League and Babe Ruth for us, and they’re actually participating now.”

Strout at least has the advantage of pulling players from a Class A program and two Class C schools, in theory. Although with Jay High School students given the first-year option of playing for Zone 2 Franklin County, instead, Andy Valley is an exclusively Leavitt/Livermore Falls co-operative team this summer.

“That was a board decision,” Strout said of Jay’s status as a swing program. “I don’t like it, but there isn’t much I can do about it.”
Dating back to its days as Bunten Post, Andy Valley has been open to schools that at least sporadically compete for regional and state championships.

Still, multiple coaches have struggled with everything from a lack of player participation to problems securing a playing field. In his tenure, Strout has filled out many lineup cards without a name in the substitute column. This year, he begins with 18.

“I’ve never had that problem (too many players). We’re already down to 15 this week with games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and a doubleheader Saturday,” Strout said. “You get a couple of kids who have to work and all of a sudden you’re at 12 or 13.”

Strout said that becoming an assistant coach at Leavitt for the first time this year helped him build credibility and interest among prospective players.

Skippers benefiting from a relative embarrassment of riches downplay the advantage.

“We’ve got the depth, but depth is great until you have to use it,” said Gayton coach Todd Cifelli.

Armed with postgraduate pitchers Kyle Neagle (Lisbon) and Will Emerson (St. Dom’s) and a near full complement from his own Lewiston High School team, Cifelli should have a golden opportunity to guide Gayton back to the state tournament.

Gayton, which finished second to recent national champion Nova Seafood last year, also launches a Junior Legion squad this summer.
“Little League and Babe Ruth are shrinking and Legion is growing. That’s why I think Legion needs to expand even more,” Cifelli said. “There’s a void there for the AAUs and the Frozen Ropes (training facilities) of the world to fill if we don’t. We need more kids to play.”

Bucking the national trend at the instructional youth levels of the sport, more young men are keeping the Legion brand of the game thriving in the tri-county area.

Even if, for a majority of them, the odds of winning more often than not seem astronomical.

“It’s what we did with softball with my daughters in the ASA tournaments out-of-state, and it’s what we know through (Dirigo) basketball,” said Fenstermacher, whose sons Aaron and Arik play for Dixfield. “When you play up another level, you get better.”

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