St. Dominic Academy first baseman, Miles Frenette, puts the tag on Buckfield’s Cody Litchfield as he dives back to first base on a pickoff attempt during a playoff game in Buckfield in early June. Litchfield was out on the play, which ended the inning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Everybody loves an underdog, especially in the postseason.

There were few teams this spring that were as big of underdogs as the St. Dominic Academy and Gray-New Gloucester baseball teams. The former went winless during the regular season while the latter won only twice, and both entered the postseason as the bottom seeds in their respective regions.

The Saints and Patriots were primed for one-and-done playoff experiences, but both shirked expectations and won their postseason openers. Gray-New Gloucester’s was particularly impressive, knocking off top-seeded Yarmouth. St. Dom’s won its No. 10-vs.-No. 7 opening-round game against Buckfield for its first win of the season, then followed that with a victory over second-seeded Rangeley.

None of those upsets would have happened in previous years’ postseasons. The Patriots and Saints, rather than becoming underdog stories, would have gotten an earlier start to summer vacation.

Now committees organized by the Maine Principals’ Association have to decide if those types of stories will be possible again, or if each sport’s postseason returns to normal.

Maine high school sports this spring used an open tournament format, meaning every team that wanted to participate in the postseason was eligible, regardless of win-loss records. Open tournaments allowed every team a playoff opportunity, and ensured that the postseason wasn’t affected by coronavirus-related quarantines and postponements, or schedules that were geared more toward regionalization than Heal-point accumulation

Normally, at least prior to this spring, teams ranked in the top two-thirds in each region’s Heal points standings qualify for the postseason. Since they finished last in Class B South and Class D South, respectively, the Gray-NG and St. Dom’s baseball teams would not have qualified.

“Our baseball team reached the regional semifinals this season, but if there hadn’t been an open tournament they wouldn’t have qualified,” St. Dom’s athletic director JP Yorkey said. “They showed that they belonged in the tournament with 8-1 and 11-1 wins in the first two rounds.”

Gray-NG first-year baseball coach Jon DiBiase said that, as a last-place team that was allowed to participate in the postseason, his team loved the open tournament.

“The regular season was a struggle, but after each loss, we reminded the guys that, ‘You’re in the playoffs, so we need to get a little better each day in practice to try to make a run in June,'” DiBiase said. “It’s baseball, anything can happen.”

DiBiase said the playoff victory essentially made the team’s season.

“Seniors got to create a memory they shouldn’t forget. In addition, the underclassmen got to experience a playoff baseball atmosphere for the first time. As the players said after the game, ‘Baseball playoffs are just different,'” DiBiase said. “We had freshmen and sophomores starters who contributed and slowly became leaders from the confidence gained in that one playoff game. A win like that can help grow a program, and we hope to keep the momentum going next year.”

Poland’s Adam Gwarjanski, right, looks to first base to see if Gray-New Gloucester’s Anthony Prescott can turn a double play during the first game of a doubleheader in Gray in May. Gwarjanski was forced out at second but the batter scampered down the line in time to beat the throw to first base. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

The open tournament was feature in all of the spring sports that use the Maine Principals’ Association’s Heal points system for postseason seeding: baseball, softball, boys and girls lacrosse, and boys and girls tennis.

For first-year varsity programs like the Mt. Blue and Gray-New Gloucester/Poland girls lacrosse teams, it meant a first-time playoffs experience. For a program like the Lewiston boys tennis team, which reached at least the Class A final every year from 2016-19, the open tournament gave a taste of postseason play to the next wave of Blue Devils who are aiming to duplicate the success of their predecessors.

Edward Little softball coach Elaine Derosby, whose team also benefited from the open tournament as Class A North’s No. 10 seed, said that the open tournaments were a positive thing this season, especially after nothing positive came out of the spring of 2020.

“It allowed for all teams to experience a tournament setting that they missed out on in 2020,” Derosby said. “With the makeup of the schedule, which was definitely necessary this spring, it allowed for teams to be rewarded, no matter what their schedule looked like.”

Lewiston’s Ahna Dostie safely dives back to first base as Edward Little’s Madisyn Scott fields a pickoff attempt during a softball game in Lewiston in April. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Since there were so many success stories, will open tournaments become a normal thing in normal seasons?

Yorkey said he is in favor of open tournaments being used again in the future.

“Having open tournaments takes the pressure off schools to travel farther than necessary in an effort to ensure their deserving teams qualify for postseason play,” Yorkey said. “I don’t think there is any downside to allowing more opportunities for kids to play.”

Derosby said she sees pros and cons to continuing open tournaments in the future.

“I think it’s important that teams be rewarded (for having good seasons); however, I also know regionalized schedules have been in discussion and an open tournament format may make regionalizing more appealing,” Derosby said.

Mountain Valley athletic director Tom Danylik said the open tournaments were great for this year, due to circumstances related to COVID-19, but he is a proponent of playoff qualification returning to the previous format for next school year.

“The playoffs are something that need to be earned, and those schools and teams that put the time in during the offseason and the regular season deserved to be rewarded for the chance to play for a championship,” Danylik said.

MPA committees for each of the spring sports that use Heal points recommended the open tournaments for this season. They will now be tasked with weighing the old way against the open way for the future, as will all the other committees that oversee sports that use Heal points, as well as football, which uses the Crabtree points system.

“That will certainly be a discussion we have with all of our individual sport committees, as well as with our Interscholastic Management Committee, at their next scheduled meeting,” MPA Executive Director Mike Burnham said.


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