Today marks a new beginning of sorts for the University of Maine baseball team.
Coming off a four-game sweep of Iona at Mahaney Diamond in Orono, coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears now transition into the meat of their season — the America East Conference schedule.
UMaine (17-12) will take a positive attitude into its four-game league series at Hartford that begins with Saturday’s noon doubleheader.
“It’s great for the confidence for everybody,” said junior co-captain Myckie Lugbauer said of the Iona series, during which the Bears racked up 58 hits and 59 runs.
“Everybody swung the sticks real well, everybody’s pitching real well, so it’s definitely good to be able to go into conference play with our heads up high right now,” he added.
The Bears drew the opening-week bye in the league schedule, thus will be the last of the seven America East squads to begin conference play. They’re feeling good about themselves, even though Iona is among the nation’s worst Division I teams.
“That’s the end of Season 1,” Trimper said of nonleague play. “We’ve got to step it up a notch now. This is when everything becomes an absolute dogfight, when you’ve got to go into weekends and try to win series. You can’t make mistakes.”
Over the 24 America East games, UMaine will fight for playoff seeding in the hope of hosting the conference tournament at Mahaney Diamond May 21-23.
The Bears believe things are falling into place for them to make a run at the league title.
“The hitters were seeing the ball well and putting some balls out of the park; the pitchers were pitching well, hitting spots and getting rewarded; so I think it was a good tuneup,” said sophomore pitcher Matt Jebb.
Trimper again was quick to point out the benefits of being able to play on the FieldTurf. Last season, UMaine’s first day on its own (soggy) field was April 11.
The Bears, who already have played eight home games, not only survived Friday night’s significant rain and some cool, damp weather Saturday, they have been able to practice on the turf during the week.
“Usually you come back from your Florida trip and go back inside, then you go on a weekend trip away and back inside,” Trimper said. “I’m finding more consistency in how our practices are going and I kind of see it in our level of play right now, too.”
He said relay throws, cutoffs and baserunning are among the skills that can be worked on outside on the turf.
Martin, Stilphen back in the fold
The UMaine lineup got a bit deeper and more diversified over the weekend with the full-fledged return of two players.
Sophomore first baseman Joey Martin of Portland and freshman infielder Kyle Stilphen of Pittston each performed well while making their 2009 home debuts.
Martin, who missed 12 games with a right shoulder injury, made a solid return to action. The lefthanded hitter went 6-for-13 with two doubles and three RBIs .
“It’s gradually been feeling better, [and] the swing’s starting to feel good, I guess, at the right time,” Martin said.
Martin may be able to help UMaine at the top of the batting order, according to Trimper.
“It is nice, because he was swinging the bat well before he got hurt and then didn’t miss a beat coming back,” Trimper said. “We actually started to groom him at the end of the Florida trip, before he got hurt, in that leadoff spot.”
Stilphen, who was used as the designated hitter, appeared comfortable at the plate. The rugged righthanded hitter went 5-for-12 with a double and his first two collegiate home runs against Iona, scoring five runs and knocking in five.
He has now appeared in six games after missing 16 straight. He suffered a broken nose and broken orbital bone around the left eye March 3 on a bad-hop grounder.
UNC, Oregon State on 2010 slate
UMaine has entered into verbal agreements to play two national-caliber baseball programs early in the 2010 season.
Trimper said the Bears are scheduled to open their season with three games against national power North Carolina Feb. 26-28 at Chapel Hill and will play three-game series March 26-28 at Oregon State in Corvallis.
“It will be good. I think we’ll be built for that,” Trimper said of the challenges proposed by the Tar Heels and the Beavers. “It will be a little bit of a step up and they’re both great teams.”
UNC was ranked as high as No. 3 in last week’s national polls, while Oregon State was 17th in one sampling.