Lucas Francis hurls the ball from his post as the Lightning shortstop, aiming to catch a Windjammers base runner out at first during an Aug. 2019 GNCBL game in Old Orchard Beach. American Journal file photo Buy this Photo

The small details of being able to play baseball aren’t lost on Gavin Arsenault.

“The ability to put the cleats on is one of the best feelings in the world,” he said.

It’s a feeling the University of Maine at Farmington baseball player didn’t get to experience due to his senior season being canceled because of the coronavirus before games even began.

Luckily for Arsenault and more than 100 other players, the majority of which have Maine ties, the Greater Northeast Collegiate Baseball League found a way to proceed with its fourth season of existence this summer.

Even that was in doubt at one point, though. 

“Obviously, there was a great chance that we were not going to be able to do anything,” GNCBL Commissioner Max Salevsky Sr. said. “When all this started with the COVID-19 back in early/mid-March, obviously all these guys got their seasons canceled. Not only guys that are going back, but some of those seniors that were going to lose their season. So it was certainly more important this year than ever to try to find a way to do it.” 

Salevsky did some searching for ways to make the league work this summer, and even spoke with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. He found “a really good plan for opening up” that was used in Ohio for baseball and softball, and borrowed from that state’s rubric of regulations. He brought that to DECD Commissioner Heather Johnson so his league could play this season. 

“Baseball probably is less likely to have transmission if you use your common sense and if you adhere to what the regulations are. And that’s what we’re doing,” Salevsky said. “I came up with a standard operating procedure, which all of our coaches know, all of the kids know. It’s something that they have not ever done on a baseball field, so it doesn’t come natural to them, but they understand that it is the cost of getting back on the field that they really have to adhere to this stuff.” 

Some of those procedures include creating 6-foot buffers in dugouts, which means only four or five players or coaches can be in there at a time, and the rest have to sit on benches outside the dugouts. There are two stations set up in each dugout for hand sanitizer and wipes, and sharing equipment is discouraged. 

Arseneault, a Dirigo High School graduate who has been playing in the league since its inception and is a member of the Nor’easters team, said there’s no more postgame handshakes. 

Even the fans, which Salevsky said don’t have to count toward the 50-person limit that players and coaches are a part of inside the lines, are expected to practice proper social distancing. 

“I do frequently speak to them and say, ‘I really want this league to have legs. I want all these young, college men to be able to do this in August and not just in the first week here,'” Salevsky said. “So we’re very serious about it.” 

“We are always being cautious of how close we are to one another and to make sure we don’t share anything,” said former Oxford Hills star and University of Maine rising sophomore Colton Carson, who plays for the Anglers. “While it might be a little weird at first in the dugout, there is no difference in the game and on the field. Ball is still being played, and if I have to sit with a little space in between my teammates or not share equipment, then that is a price myself and the rest of the league are willing to pay to play ball.” 

Oxford Hills’ Colton Carson delivers a pitch during his no-hitter against Skowhegan in the Class A North quarterfinals last June. Brewster Burns photo/Sun Journal

The league is made up of six teams, with games three days a week at one of five fields (Westbrook High School, St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Goodall Park in Sanford, St. Louis Field in Biddeford and Field of Dreams in Harrison). The league normally also plays at The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach, but Salevsky said he had to finalize a schedule before The Ballpark was able to commit to being a host. 

Carson’s Anglers team is filled with area players. In addition to former Saint Dominic Academy player Gavin Bates (University of Dayton), former Edward Little standout Ethan Brown (Southern Maine) and former Monmouth Academy star Hunter Richardson (St. Joe’s), Carson is joined by seven other Oxford Hills graduates. Rodney Bean, Ashton Kennison, Janek Luksza, Jonny Pruett and Cam Slicer all migrated to USM, and Wyatt Williamson will join them next year. Hunter LaBossiere was a teammate of Arsenault’s at UMF. 

“I am extremely happy to be playing after thinking that there was gonna be no baseball this summer at all,” said Williamson, whose father Gary is one the Anglers’ coaches, along with Kennison’s father, Kyle. “It was a huge bummer not having any baseball this spring after working and practicing all winter for the season.” 

Arsenault’s Nor’easters team, the defending league champion that is coached by Salevsky, also includes Colin Coyne from Bates College (Falmouth graduate), UMF’s Riley Bartell (Portland), and Max Salevsky Jr., a Bonny Eagle graduate who was a classmate of Arsenault at UMF. 

Salevsky Sr. said his son, who will be a graduate student this coming school year with a year of playing eligibility left, doesn’t know where he will play his final season of college baseball. Arsenault will spend his at USM, and getting to play against many of his future teammates is “going to make this a lot easier when I show up for the season.” 

Two more USM players from the tri-county area are on the Lumberjacks: Lisbon’s Lucas Francis and Mt. Blue’s Colton Lawrence. 

Lewiston third baseman Jack LeBlond prepares to throw to first base to attempt to get out Oxford Hills’ Ethan Cutler last June. Cutler beat out the throw. Brewster Burns photo

“It’s always good to see teammates because there’s a bond that we share, but it’s definitely great to compete against them, at the same time,” Francis said. 

Former Lewiston standout Jack LeBlond, who will join Carson at Maine next year, and Westbrook’s TJ Dorn, who will be going to UMF, play for the Norsemen. 

The league’s other two teams, the Patriots and Windjammers, do not feature any area players. 

For Carson and Williamson, this season has been an opportunity they never thought they would get. 

“I thought last summer was the last time I’d play with Colton again. He wouldn’t have been able to play (American Legion baseball) this summer, which would have been tough,” Williamson said. “I have been playing with him since I was 10, so it was sad to think I was done playing with him for good.” 

“It has been truly amazing to be able to play ball with some of my closest friends, who I have played alongside with at Oxford Hills, again,” Carson said. “I was faced with the cold truth at the end of last summer, when I had thought it was the last time I would take the field with those guys, and it was heartbreaking. But in a very particular way, through all the mess, tragedy and confusion, the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing in disguise for me because it let me take the field with my brothers for another season.” 

Carson, who only got into three games for Maine in his freshman season before the remainder was canceled, was able to pitch to his longtime catcher Williamson at a local field to ramp his arm back up for the GNCBL season. 

NCAA Division I players like Carson weren’t as prevalent in the GNCBL in year’s past, but other college summer leagues, like the New England Collegiate Baseball League that features the Sanford Mainers — for whom Gavin Bates played last year — canceled their seasons. That has allowed local Division I players (Salevsky Sr. said the league has 18 on its rosters) to compete in the league. 

“It’s always been my thought that if you play with and against a better quality of player, that’s going to raise your game, and that is exactly what we’re seeing this year,” Salevsky Sr. said. “Guys are playing to their competition.” 

Coyne said his former Falmouth teammates, twins Reece and Robbie Armitage, who went to Division I Marist College and played for the Mainers in the past but are on the Lumberjacks this year, have given him some familiar faces on the diamond, even if they are foes. 

“Rob and Reece are actually two of my best friends. We’ve grown up and played together for 15 years,” Coyne said. “Whenever we play each other we actually carpool.” 

“I’m extremely happy to be playing ball again,” Coyne added. “Being on a field again is an awesome feeling.” 

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