ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine was looking for an early-season home series.
Lehigh University wanted some high-caliber competition.
Those needs bring those two programs together this weekend as the 7-12 Black Bears open their northern schedule with a four-game series against the 5-10 Mountain Hawks.
UMaine and Lehigh play a doubleheader today starting at 1 p.m., then play a Sunday twinbill beginning at 11:30 a.m. Each day will feature a seven-inning game followed by a nine-inning contest.
Lehigh pulled into chilly Orono on Friday evening after a 9½-hour bus trip from Pennsylvania.
“Our main motivation was to find teams that are going to prepare us for [Patriot] League play,” said 15th-year Lehigh coach Sean Leary. “The only negative was the travel and the potential [cold] weather.”
Even with Mahaney Diamond’s first-class FieldTurf facility at the ready, UMaine coach Steve Trimper admits it is difficult to get teams to travel to Orono. So the Bears provided more incentive, covering some of Lehigh’s costs, about $7,000.
“Certainly Maine makes it worth your while,” Leary said. “We could have gone the other direction [south].”
Trimper said it’s still a good deal financially for UMaine, which would have doled out about $15,000 to take a four-day trip to Greater New York.
“This is usually a travel weekend for us,” Trimper said. “But to offer to pick up a team’s bus and hotel, it ends up being half as much.”
The only thing UMaine can’t control is the temperature in Orono. The series was originally scheduled to start Friday but was pushed to Saturday because of the forecast for cold temperatures and biting winds.
“It’s cold everywhere you’re going to play [in the Northeast],” said senior catcher Joe Mercurio. “The turf actually heats up like 10 degrees warmer than the actual temperature, so that feels better, too.”
The Bears are accustomed to cold weather and gladly will trade 10 degrees or so for the opportunity to play at home. This weekend, UMaine begins marking its territory.
“When [opponents] come here, we expect to win. We have to protect our ‘house,’” said junior captain Joey Martin of Portland. “We want the reputation of a team that’s hard to beat at home.”
The Bears practiced in the Mahaney Dome on Friday rather than brave the conditions outside. Today’s forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid-30s with only a breeze.
Both teams also will be able to utilize the new dugouts at Mahaney Diamond. The concrete structures are considerable larger than their predecessors.
Trimper said both dugouts will be equipped with portable heaters in an effort to take off the chill.
The dugouts also are expected to be safer for players, coaches and staff. There is now only an 18-inch drop from field level to the dugout floor, while each has been fitted with a railing covered by a pad and protective netting.
“The benches are unbelievable,” Martin said. “It changes the whole aspect of watching the game.”
Trimper said UMaine director of engineering support Claude Junkins designed the dugouts, and the project was overseen by UMaine associate athletic director for internal operations Will Biberstein.
The renovations, which cost approximately $100,000, were covered through private fundraising, including key contributions from Mike Hammond of Hammond Lumber and Tom Applebee of Applebee Enterprises.
UMaine seems to have its legs back after traveling from Oregon on Monday. The Bears took Tuesday off but practiced on Mahaney Diamond both Wednesday and Thursday.
Now, after trips to Texas, North Carolina, Florida and the Pacific Northwest, they’re excited to make their home debut.
“It’s great knowing that this is our last first home series as seniors and the fact that we finally get to start playing in front of family and friends,” Mercurio said.
Little League Day at Mahaney
Baseball players up to age 12 are invited to join the UMaine team today for some “Little League Day” pregame activities at Mahaney Diamond.
Those youngsters, who will be admitted free if they take their baseball glove, will be allowed to gather on the field to watch the Bears take batting practice starting at 11:45 a.m.
The kids will later be invited to stand on the field with the players during “The Star Spangled Banner.”