The Rangeley baseball team celebrates after winning the 2008 Class D state title. Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

RANGELEY — Rangeley Lakes Regional School is not conducive to baseball success.

It’s one of the smallest high schools in Maine, with only 66 students, according to recent data from the Maine Principals’ Association. There’s also the matter of geography. Deep in the Western Maine mountains, Rangeley’s winters tend to linger. When teams in other parts of the state are practicing or even playing games on their fields, the Lakers are still in the gym or throwing in a parking lot. Often, Rangeley’s first time on a diamond is the season-opening game.

“We’d be pushing snow off the baseball diamond after school to hurry up the process,” said Ben Bliss, a 2008 Rangeley graduate.

In 2008, the Rangeley baseball team overcame all the obstacles, winning the Class D state championship with a 3-2 win over Katahdin at Bangor’s Mansfield Stadium. The win gave the Lakers their first and only baseball state crown.

The championship run had been building in Rangeley for some time, said Mark Gordon, the program’s coach at the time.

“They all started off in Little League and played every year together. We had several really good players, and when that happens, they take the other players and make them rise up,” Gordon said. “I think we knew (we were a contender) right from the beginning (of the season), but luck and a few things have to go your way.”

Added Luke Hammond, a junior pitcher/outfielder on that championship team: “That group of guys had been playing together since we were 10 years old. We won all the championships we could locally. There were 26 people in my class. Nobody expected us to be good at sports or good athletes.”

The Lakers showed promise in 2006, advancing to the Western Maine championship game before falling to Richmond.

The Rangeley baseball team celebrates after winning the 2008 Class D state championship at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. Contributed photo

In 2007, Rangeley beat Richmond in the regional final, but then fell to Deer Isle-Stonington, 11-2, in the state championship game at St. Joseph College’s Larry Mahaney Diamond.

Hammond started against Deer Isle that day. He realized it was going to be a tough game when Deer Isle’s leadoff hitter beat out a simple grounder to shortstop to open the game.

“To be honest, I remember that loss much more than the Katahdin win,” Hammond said.

Maybe the Lakers were still basking in their victory over Richmond in the regional final, Bliss said. Whatever the reason, they weren’t ready to play that day, and Deer Isle took complete advantage of it.

“You can’t come out relaxed and flat-footed. Deer Isle showed us, even in Class D, kids can play,” Bliss said.

The Lakers learned from that state game loss, and it served as motivation throughout the next season.

Rangeley pitcher Luke Hammond catches a pop up for an out during a 2008 game in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The 2008 season began with a spring break trip to Florida, in which the team trained and played games against strong baseball teams from around the country.

“That was definitely an eye-opener, playing big schools from all over the country,” said David Raymond, Rangeley’s senior catcher.

The 2008 Lakers had depth not often seen in Class D. Sophomores Alex Rodway and Ross Gordon were solid up the middle at shortstop and second base, respectively. Designated hitter Jordan Richard and infielder Ben Morton were productive at the bottom of Rangeley’s lineup, particularly in the state game. Hammond, a lefty, and Bliss served as co-aces that season, although Bliss battled control issues brought on by a sore elbow much of the season.

“There weren’t many lefties in Class D. (Hammond) had a hard curveball from the other side that threw off D kids,” said Raymond, now 30 and a mechanical engineer in the Portland area. “Ben was a hard thrower and consistent. Him and I were perfectly in tune (in the 2008 state game).”

Bliss, 30, lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where he works as a realtor and project manager for a construction firm. Bliss also coaches baseball at Rip City, an indoor training facility, alongside former Major League players like Desi Relaford and Marlon Byrd. Bliss earned a spot as a walk-on third baseman at the University of North Florida, but spent just one season with the team, choosing to focus on his academics.

When he threw with his sore arm as a Laker, neither Tylenol nor ibuprofen would dull the ache. Bliss’ throwing motion did the trick, though, numbing his right arm enough to get through a game. After Hammond pitched in the regional final, Bliss knew he’d get the ball in the state game.

“If I kept pitching after high school, I probably would’ve had to have surgery,” Bliss said. “Hammond pitched regional final: I liked pressure. I knew it was me (in the state game). I was in tunnel vision that game.”

“We were skeptical if he would be able to go,” Mark Gordon said.

 

Bliss threw his best game of the season that day in Bangor, allowing three hits with six strikeouts, five walks, and two hit batters. The control problems Bliss had all season never overwhelmed him.

“That’s the kind of kid (Bliss) is. He was gutty. He kept the ball over the plate and let those guys hit it,” Hammond said.

The game was scoreless until the top of the fifth inning, when Raymond’s sacrifice fly scored Richard.

The Lakers took a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning. Bliss singled, took second on an error, and scored on a Morton single. Katahdin scored a run in the bottom of the inning to cut Rangeley’s lead to 2-1.

In the top of the seventh, the Lakers added an insurance run. After reaching base on a three-base throwing error, Raymond scored on Hammond’s single to right field.

Rangeley slugger Luke Hammond was a force during the 2008 season, which ended with the Lakers winning the Class D state title. Contributed photo

“I had terrible at-bats. All my at bats were terrible until my last one,” Hammond, 29, said.

Hammond transferred to Deering High School, where, as a senior, he helped the Portland school win the Class A championship in 2009. Hammond spent one season at Division I Long Island University before finishing his academic and baseball career at the University of Southern Maine. Hammond lives in Lake Tahoe, California, where he coaches Alpine ski racing at Sugar Bowl Academy. In the summer, Hammond works as a fly fishing guide in Alaska with his company, AK Trout Camp.

Katahdin rallied for a run in the bottom of the seventh, scoring on a wild pitch, but Bliss struck out the final batter with the tying run on third base, setting off the Lakers victory celebration. Twelve years later, it still comes up when members of the team get together.

“I just had a wedding this summer. It always comes up. A quick trip down memory lane,” Raymond said. “You see that trophy case, and it’s the only Gold Glove in there.”

In many of the springs since that state championship, Rangeley was unable to field a baseball team. The Lakers failed to have a team in 2018. The school did plan on having a team this season, and the team was scheduled to open the season last Saturday at Buckfield before the MPA canceled the spring season in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s to be expected I guess. At those small schools, it comes and goes with the kids,” Hammond said.

Added Raymond: “Baseball’s hard at a school that size.”

It wasn’t easy, but at times, the 2008 Lakers made it look that way.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: