Sophomore Janek Luksza celebrates with a fist bump with base coach Joe Oufiero after his seeing-eye ground ball squeaked by Edward Little’s second baseman during a game earlier this season.

Sophomore Janek Luksza celebrates with a fist bump with base coach Joe Oufiero after his seeing-eye ground ball squeaked by Edward Little’s second baseman during a game earlier this season.

PARIS — Another rainy day meant yet another day of practicing indoors for the Oxford Hills baseball team Monday.

Preparing for the Class A North tournament as the No. 1 seed, the Vikings went about their business as if it was late March and not early June, as coach Shane Slicer and his staff looked on at In the Zone Sports Center.

“They just want to play baseball and they don’t care of it’s indoors or outdoors, if it’s on a piece-of-crap field where they have to pump off the field, they don’t care,” Slicer said. “They just go to work, no matter what the conditions.”

“All of us have a job and we all do it,” sophomore shortstop/pitcher Janek Luksza said.

Oxford Hills is one of several local teams with a young nucleus hoping to make noise in the tournament. Most are already a year ahead of schedule, regardless of how they do over the next two weeks, because they went into the season thinking they were in rebuilding mode, or would at least be a year away from contending for a title.

Slicer expected the Vikings to be competitive in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference this season despite having just one senior starter, Brayden Bean. He knew a talented junior class led by Troy Johnson, Emery Chickering and Hunter LaBossiere would be ready to produce more.

But even he is surprised how his team has taken the fast track to contention thanks to emerging sophomores such as Lukska, Colton Carson, Ashton Kennison and Cam Slicer.

“I never thought we would be No. 1, going into the season,” Slicer said. “I thought we would compete, but there are an awful lot of good senior pitchers in our league, D1 guys. I was impressed with how they weren’t afraid of them, and we beat them, for the most part.”

While the Vikings were ready to take on the more experienced teams from day one, it took some time for Dirigo to climb up the ranks in Class C South. The Cougars had just two seniors and virtually no varsity pitching experience at the start of the season, and coach Ryan Palmer was just hoping his team of mostly juniors and sophomores could latch on to one of the final playoff spots.

“I looked at what we had and looked at what the rest of the conference would be, and I had us at four or five wins,” Palmer said. 

Just two weeks ago, the Cougars did in fact find themselves in the ninth and final playoff spot in the region. But they won six of their last seven, including the last five in a row. Wins over Lisbon, now the top-ranked team in C South, and Hall-Dale, which at the time was in the top spot, vaulted the Cougars up to No.5. They enter the tournament with a 9-7 record.

The key, Palmer said, has been the contributions of juniors Luke Lueders and Cooper Chiasson, and the emergence of sophomores such as Chandler Redmond that have made the lineup deeper.

“Two weeks ago, I said if we could get a win over a quality opponent, this team is going to take off. And then we beat Hall-Dale,” Palmer said. “We struggled offensively at the beginning of the year. We were getting a few hits here and there, but we weren’t getting timely hits. The last couple of weeks, we’ve gotten the timely hits, and more.”

Young teams such as Lewiston, Mountain Valley and St. Dom’s have also exceeded expectations during the regular season and are hoping to continue to surprise in the postseason.

Having a young nucleus can help curtail some of the playoff pressure, even as the No. 1 seed.

“There are no real expectations. Nobody else thought we were going to be very good, being a young team,” Bean said. 

Oxford Hills has played with the confidence, poise and aggressiveness of a much older team all season, as evidenced by its 4-0 record in one-run games.

“They don’t get rattled,” Slicer said. “And our pitching staff doesn’t get rattled, so defensively, that has been very, very big. Their focus level for their age is great.”

“Some games, our offense hasn’t been putting up any numbers, so when we can go out and shut a team down for seven innings by one or two runs, it’s big,” Bean said. “Even when you’re not hitting, you’ve still got to get the job done, still got to find a way to grind it out.”

“A really big help is the mentality of these young guys. They’ve played in a lot of big games and high-pressure situations,” Bean added. “They’re mentally tough. They don’t care who’s on the other side. They go out and play the way they’ve been taught to play.”

Some of the younger players on Oxford Hills and Mountain Valley already have a lot of big-game experience, having played on the Tri-County Babe Ruth All-Star team that won the New England championship in 2015 and 2016.

It is not uncommon for young teams that find success in high school baseball to build off of a foundation of Little League, Cal Ripken and/or Babe Ruth success. 

“They came to me with a sense of toughness,” Slicer said. “I think being in all of those pressure situations fuels them, and their desire to win.”

“Most of us have played together since we were really young, so we’re just real comfortable,” Luksza said. “We just go and have fun and compete.”


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