AUGUSTA  The first sign of a lost summer in youth baseball wasn’t hard to find at Morton Field on Saturday.

The aluminum grandstand at the Augusta ballpark, site of many state high school and American Legion baseball championships over the years, was virtually empty for the Maine Independent Baseball League’s 17U South Division championship game between Turner and Winthrop. Yellow tape and city signs reminding spectators to maintain safe social distancing greeted anyone who thought they could settle into seats behind home plate.

But one would have trouble convincing the two-or-three dozen fans lined up next to each dugout on the first and third base sides and shaded under an awning in left field that there wasn’t compelling baseball going on. Some masked, most not, yet spread out along each side, hanging on every pitch on a quintessential baseball afternoon.

Members of the Turner Bandits gather after defeating Winthrop, 9-5, in the Maine Independent Baseball League 17U South final at Morton Field in Augusta on Saturday. Randy Whitehouse/Sun Journal

It clearly wasn’t a typical day or game, but try telling Garrett Mollica or Ryan Thibault that it didn’t mean much.

The former, Turner’s left-handed starting pitcher, battled a stiff back and occasional wildness to gut out a seven-inning, 83-pitch complete game. The latter delivered what proved to be the game-winning hit, a two-run, bases-loaded single, which was the key blow in the Bandits’ seven-run fourth inning and 9-5 win.

Mollica, Thibault and the Bandits will play for the league championship at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Morton Field against either Motor City (Orono/Old Town), which beat Machias 6-3 to win the North title following the conclusion of the South championship.

It will be the Bandits’ 19th game (including four postseason games) since they started playing in late June.

The league was formed after the American Legion canceled its season due to the coronavirus pandemic in May. Scott Cournoyer of Swanville was the driving force behind bringing teams from central, coastal and northern Maine together to form a league. 

“I love seeing the kids smile and playing ball,” said Cournoyer, whose son Brandon plays in the 19U league. “I just love baseball and I love being able to create this opportunity for the kids.”

Cournoyer spent countless hours organizing, working the phones and email with coaches all over the state to form two leagues, one for players 17-and-under and one for players 19-and-under.

“Just talking to the right people and networking,” Cournoyer said as he lined the batters boxes at home plate between games. “It took the coaches that are committed and the towns that were allowing us to use their field, the kids coming together to work on the fields and getting them ready to play. It took a lot of flexibility from everybody to make it happen, and it all came together.”

Mollica’s father, Chuck, was among those Cournoyer networked with to start a team in Turner, which also included players from Dixfield and Minot. Garrett admitted he was skeptical that the league would get off the ground when his father first proposed the idea, but given that his spring had consisted of “a lot of video games,” and no baseball, he wanted in if they could make it happen.

“It wasn’t looking good at first, but everybody came together,” Garrett Mollica said. “I had a couple of doubts at first, but pretty soon it ended up having, like, 14 teams, which is a pretty big league for the time we had (to organize it). It felt nice to be able to hit the field and play baseball.”

Some teams ended up dropping out before and during the season for various reasons, but the 17U league finished the campaign with 17 teams that had played between 14 and 18 games during the regular season. The league stretched from Calais to Falmouth.

Winthrop upset Falmouth to reach Saturday’s division final. Winthrop High School varsity baseball coach John Novak formed the team, bringing together players from Winthrop, Monmouth and Gardiner to play.

Turner Bandits pitcher Garrett Mollica delivers a pitch during the Maine Independent Baseball League 17U South final at Morton Field in Augusta on Saturday (Randy Whitehouse/Sun Journal)

One of the biggest motivating factors for Novak was salvaging a baseball season for those who missed out on their spring high school season after it was canceled by the Maine Principals’ Association due to the pandemic.

The makeshift league didn’t completely make up for that loss, said Gavin Perkins, who will be a Winthrop senior in the fall, but it was a much-needed summer activity.

“It’s really nice to be able to get out here and still be able to play after we lost our season for high school,” Perkins said. “It helps a little bit.”

“This is it for baseball until next year,” Winthrop’s Owen Foster said. “Hopefully, we’ll be playing high school ball next year.”

With no spring baseball this year, Winthrop, like most teams, had a lot of rust to shake off early in the season.

“The beginning of the season was a little rough, but once we got going and had a couple of practices, we started to put it all together,” he said.

The league had its rough edges, too. Winthrop got a little extra motivation to upset Falmouth on Friday because of a dispute over how many umpires would work the game. League rules were for three umpires to work the game, but Town of Falmouth rules trumped the league’s, and only one umpire, calling balls and strikes from behind the pitcher’s mound, could be on the field.

Saturday’s games had three umpires, although the one behind home plate didn’t have to call as many balls and strikes as he would in a typical high school or Legion game. Hitters on both sides stepped up the plate hacking. Mollica gave up two runs to Winthrop in the top of the first on just 12 pitches. Collectively, Winthrop’s three hits in the inning may have totaled 250 feet.

Turner answered with a run in the bottom of the first and tied it in the third before taking the lead in the fourth.

“For once, we finally came from behind to win a game,” Bandits coach Ryan Palmer said. “We’ve been talking for the last couple of weeks about how we never have, so I guess this game’s as good as any.”

A number of times while the Bandits were at bat, Garrett Mollica retreated behind the dugout with a coach to work on his back, keeping it loose so he could toe the rubber again next inning.

“My lower back’s been bothering a little bit,” said Mollica, who will enter his senior year at Leavitt in the fall. “I was stretching it between innings and put some IcyHot on my back. It was feeling better towards the end.”

His team’s seven-run fourth provided lots of relief, too, and not just for Mollica.

“Usually, I can never swing the bat. I can lay down a good bunt. But I got up there and someone yelled ‘Swing at the first pitch,'” said Thibault, who is also heading into his senior year at Leavitt in the fall.  “I just thought in my head that the pitch was going to come down the middle. I took a hack at it and hit it up the middle. It felt pretty good.”

“I haven’t done anything that special in a while,” he said.


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