ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine baseball team has been practicing on FieldTurf since the Mahaney Dome opened late in 2005.
Over the weekend, the Black Bears put a newer version of the versatile artificial surface to use for the first time outdoors on their home field, Mahaney Diamond.
While coach Steve Trimper’s team (12-9) settled for a split of its four-game nonleague series against Sacred Heart of Fairfield, Conn., the Bears were thrilled to reap the benefits of the most recent athletic facilities upgrade on campus.
“It’s unbelievable,” said senior outfielder and co-captain Billy Cather, who was quick to capitalize on the advantages the FieldTurf has to offer.
“I felt like I could fly down to first base and I got some balls in the outfield that usually take bad hops,” said Cather, who made one terrific running catch of a fly ball to left-center that he never would have reached on soggy grass.
“The infield was turning double plays left and right, so I really think it’s going to help us out.”
The Bears’ infielders played out-standing defense in the series, turn-ing seven double plays in the four games. That included four in the first game of Sunday’s double-header.
UMaine sophomore third base-man Jarrett Lukas of Old Town was particularly impressive, making a handful of difficult fielding plays look relatively easy in the series.
“The field’s very nice. It plays real well,” Lukas said. “It’s turf and playing up here in March, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it.”
Paced by the veteran second base-shortstop tandem of Danny Menendez and Tony Patane, UMaine has already turned 28 dou-ble plays in 21 games this season.
With 35 regular-season games remaining, that puts the Bears on a pace to eclipse the single-season record of 64 “twin-killings” set in 2005 — especially with 17 home games and a four-game America East series at Hartford on artificial turf.
The pitchers were obvious bene-ficiaries of the smoother rolls and true hops. On Sunday, sophomore righthander Matt Jebb had his share of difficulties, but managed to avoid major trouble thanks to strong de-fense behind him.
“The turf is fantastic,” Jebb said. “It’s slow [the speed at which the ball rolls] right now because it’s new, but that’s great for pitchers as long as we can keep the ball on the ground.
“It’s nice because the ball sits right on the turf,” he continued.
“The infielders have got to adjust a little bit, just sit down [in their fielding stance] a little longer.”
While the team has provided UMaine fans with reason for opti-mism about its prospects for 2009, the facility clearly brought out some curious spectators for the home-opening series.
Upwards of 350 fans turned out Saturday, which proved the lesser of two evils in terms of the weekend weather. Temperatures in the mid-to-upper 30s Saturday turned colder Sunday as the sun was often hidden by the clouds and a chilling wind blew across campus.
Nearly 200 people attended Sun-day’s games.
UMaine athletics tried to give fans a sneak peek by not charging admission for the Sacred Heart se-ries. However, the cold weather likely kept the numbers down con-siderably.
“[Sunday] was cold, especially when there wasn’t any sun out,” Trimper said. “There were some snowflakes coming down. We played some cold days in February down in Delaware, but this was pretty chilly.”
While there are warmer days ahead for the Black Bears, the first foray into playing home games on the FieldTurf seemed to meet with overwhelming approval among the players.
“I like it a lot,” said senior co-captain Kevin McAvoy of Brewer.
“There’s no dirt, [so] you really don’t slip. You can’t get muddy and the balls don’t get all messed up. The first weekend went well and I can’t wait to keep playing on it.”
Ames earns honorable mention
UMaine-Fort Kent senior Ashley Ames has been named to the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball All-American team as an honorable mention selection.
The Dexter native earned Sunrise Conference Player of the Year hon-ors while leading the Bengals to a 23-6 record and their fourth trip to the NAIA National Tournament in the last six seasons.
Ames led the Bengals in scoring, rebounding and steals.