USM’s Janek Luksza connects on a pitch during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre/USM Athletics

Ed Flaherty has been the baseball coach at University of Southern Maine for a long time — 36 years and counting — and he’s been right more than he’s been wrong.

But, he said, some of his players probably questioned his decision to insert newcomer Janek Luksza into the starting lineup for the Huskies’ first and only game last year.

Janek Luksza was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Little East Conference tournament. Photo courtesy of USM Athletics

Luksza himself might have doubted his starting spot himself earlier this season, but he left no doubt of his worth in USM’s biggest games to date, going for 9 for 17 in five games of the Little East Conference tournament to earn MVP honors and help the Huskies capture the league title.

“There’s a few guys that come along as true freshman that I put in the first game because I’m just convinced they’re going to be good,” Flaherty said. “You just got to start playing them so they get better faster.”

Luksza went hitless while batting out of the eighth spot in USM’s lone game last year before the coronavirus pandemic brought sports to a halt in the spring of 2020.

He was back in the starting lineup, at No. 8 in the order, to open this season, and drew three walks with an RBI and a run scored. His first collegiate hit came the next day.

What followed was two more hitless games, and soon a two-week stretch of not playing. He was batting .200 at that point.

Flaherty eventually moved Luksza up to the No. 6 spot in the batting order — “I said, ‘This guy’s ready for this,'” Flaherty recalls — and the hits started to follow. Luksza’s batting average jumped into the mid-.200s, went over .300 briefly, dipped back into the .200s; but after his performance in the LEC tournament, he entered the NCAA tournament at a season-high .324. That batting average is fourth-highest on the team, and his 30 RBIs are third-most.

“Started out kind of rough, but just been working at practice, get better every day,” Luksza said. “Pretty much just work on getting better every day.”

In Thursday’s NCAA regional opener, Luksza went 1 for 4 with a walk and two runs scored in USM’s 17-2 win.

Luksza said he was a little surprised to earn a starting spot, but he knew he had worked hard enough to put himself in that position. That included fall ball in 2019 and the 2020 preseason before the season was shut down after one game.

“I think it honestly helped a lot because we got to practice pretty much up until our first game, and I got used to the way Coach Flaherty and the other coaches run things around here,” Luksza said. “So I got to experience that. And then I kind of knew what it was about after that year.”

Despite having an inkling of Luksza’s potential, Flaherty has been surprised by the quickness of Luksza’s ascent.

“He progressed faster than I thought he would,” Flaherty said. “I always thought he was going to be good. I watched him play a fair number of games at Oxford Hills and he was kind of ‘the guy’ — besides the pitcher, (Colton) Carson, (who’s now at University of Maine). But he’s athletic, he’s very low-key, very even-keeled, and seems to pick up on what you’re teaching. You combine all those things and you end up getting a pretty good player.”

Luksza’s coach at Oxford Hills, Shane Slicer, said Janek’s success is no surprise to him.

“Great ball player. When the games get tougher or close, Janek is at his best. He is just a winner and super under pressure,” Slicer said. “I am proud and happy for his success.”

Flaherty also noted that Luksza comes up big in big spots, and he likes being in those situations.

He was in a lot of them during his high school career, whether it was regional and state championship games for the Vikings or the American Legion state tournament with Bessey Motors (which was made up of his high school teammates and coached by Slicer). Luksza said all of those games got him prepared for the five-game run in the LEC tournament.

Luksza said he was proud to win the tournament MVP for his team, especially the seniors, as well as the coaching staff.

Flaherty likes that Luksza brought a teamwork attitude with him from Oxford Hills, along with fellow former Vikings Cam Slicer, Rodney Bean and Wyatt Williamson. Flaherty also knows the type of pedigree that Shane Slicer has, being a fellow UMaine alum like Flaherty.

“Tough, no-nonsense, play the game hard, be scared of nobody. That’s kind of what I would say about all those kids,” Flaherty said.

Slicer said the former Vikings standouts played for each other and gave everything they had to the program.

“They are a very unselfish group of players and I love each and every one of them,” Slicer said.

Luksza said he’s happy to have his former teammates with him at USM — especially when things aren’t going well and he knows his longtime friends can help him figure out how and what to fix — but he’s also embraced connecting with some former rivals-turned-teammates, such as Windham’s Bryce Afthim and Thornton Academy’s Cam Seymour.

Luksza might have been the MVP of the LEC tournament, but Seymour — who lives with Luksza and Afthim — was the hero, hitting a walk-off home run in the championship matchup.

“It gave me goosebumps,” Luksza said. “Every time I watch the video I get goosebumps. It was insane.”

USM’s Cam Seymour (34) gets congratulations from Janek Luksza, middle, and Cam Slicer during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre/USM Athletics

 

Luksza might get goosebumps again this weekend when he gets his first taste of the NCAA tournament, but he can lean on all of his previous big-game experience to hopefully help keep the Huskies’ postseason run going. Luksza said he just wants to keep playing with this year’s group.

Flaherty said next year — Luksza’s third with the program but only his sophomore season in terms of NCAA eligibility — that Luksza will move from second base to shortstop, “and he’s going to fit right in to our (list of) great shortstops ever.”

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