Young Blue Devils on improbable run

Posted June 18, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

     A look at Calais High School’s baseball roster suggests the Blue Devils are too young to be doing what they are doing.

  Postseason success is the dominion of the veterans, after all, players who learned from losing to more veteran teams during their formative years on the diamond.

  As for Calais, it has few older guys. Jeremy Carr, Josh Gillespie and Dylan Ramsdell are the only seniors on the team, and there are zero juniors. As for the rest of the roster, it’s filled with six sophomores and six freshmen — and of those 12 only one played on the varsity a year ago.

  Yet not only is Calais the new Eastern Maine Class C champion, but the Blue Devils earned that title by surviving all three of its postseason games by a single run, 1-0 over Searsport, 8-7 over Stearns of Millinocket and 4-3 over Penobscot Valley of Howland in Tuesday’s regional final.

  So who needs experience?

  “They have a lot of heart,” said fifth-year Blue Devils’ coach Kenny Murphy, whose 15-3 team will face 17-2 Dirigo of Dixfield for the state title at 5 p.m. Saturday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

  “And they’re all baseball players who understand the game very well.”

  The Class A final will also be contested at St. Joe’s as Oxford Hills will battle Biddeford at noon. Meanwhile, the Class B and D finals will be held at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor where Waterville will take on Cape Elizabeth at 11 a.m. and Central Aroostook will play Richmond at 3 p.m.

  The schoolboy athletic tradition is rich at Calais, but most of it has come in basketball, where the Blue Devils won four straight EM titles and three state crowns between 2006 and 2009 before reaching the regional final again last winter.

  All three seniors on the baseball team also contributed to that run, and while the rest of the roster watched from their various levels within the feeder system, seeing what could be done was a lesson well learned by up-and-coming athletes throughout the school.

  “Even though they’re young, they’ve been playing together for a long time and they have great chemistry,” said Murphy, the brother-in-law of Calais boys basketball coach Ed Leeman. “That’s what’s kept us in a lot of games.”

  Also helping the Calais baseball program grow has been its players’ participation in summer baseball, including the local American Legion program and at the Little League level.

  Last summer, five players on the current Calais roster were part of a state championship Senior League team that went on to play at the U.S. East Regional in West Deptford, N.J.

  And while they lost both games they played at the regional — one to Vineland, N.J., which went on compete at the Senior League World Series in Bangor last August — the exposure to top-level competition both in-state and beyond has accelerated the young Blue Devils’ fast track to success.

  “I think seeing the kind of pitching we saw in New Jersey really helped us,” said sophomore infielder Jesse Clark. “We beat Ellsworth and Bucksport in the state tournament and they had good pitchers who threw hard, and then we got to New Jersey and they were throwing 75 or 80 [miles per hour] with 12-to-6 curveballs.

  “It was tough competition, but it helped us.”

  Still, asking 12 underclassmen to make the jump from either the bench or the middle-school level to major roles on a team that graduated nine seniors from the 2009 edition that reached the regional semifinals was a considerable request.

  “When the season started I didn’t think that as a team we were mature enough to be Eastern Maine champions,” said Carr, the team’s third-year catcher. “I knew we had the talent and the willpower, but I didn’t know what would happen when things got tough, whether we’d get frustrated.”

  A season-opening victory at rival Washington Academy of East Machias — one of the preseason favorites in Eastern C — gave the Blue Devils an early dose of self-confidence, and as the season progressed Calais developed an identity founded in the pitching of Gillespie and sophomore Adam Geel, solid defense, and team speed.

  Gillespie (6-2) and Geel (7-1) have provided the Blue Devils a 1-2 punch ultimately unmatched in Eastern C, with Gillespie set to get the start against Dirigo after Geel earned the win in the EM final.

  “I call them both our No. 1s,” said Murphy. “They’ve both done such a great job for us.”

  Meanwhile, Carr, sophomore Jeremy Beers, Geel and Gillespie, the top four batters in the Calais lineup, each has more than 20 stolen bases — and rarely have they been caught.

  “The defense has been huge all year, and we’ve had timely hitting,” said Geel. “Then we’ve got four or five guys who have 20 steals, and that’s really helped get our offense going.”

  Calais will be seeking its first state title in baseball since 1976 on Saturday after securing its first regional crown since 1992.

  And as has been the case throughout this season, the Blue Devils will be the less-experienced team against a Dirigo squad featuring several players who will be competing in a state final for the third time in as many sports seasons during the 2009-10 academic year.

  Dirigo won the Class C state title in football last fall, and also reached the ultimate game in basketball last winter before falling to Washington Academy.

  Yet the Blue Devils remain confident. Perhaps they’re too young to know any different.

  “If we come out and play the way we need to play, we can win,” said Clark. “And we’ve been playing the way we need to play.”

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