Dave Utterback faced a dilemma last fall.
The Orono Twins American Legion baseball program, which once drew players from throughout the northern half of Maine and even Canada, was down to just two high schools — Orono and Old Town — from which its coach was able to recruit.
“There were probably 14 kids on the Orono Twins last summer, but if you look at four or five kids they were JV players from Old Town,” said Utterback, whose Legion team finished 4-16 in 2009. “It’s just tough to compete with that kind of youth when you’re going up against the Bangors and Brewers.”
With that shrinking geographic base also came fewer resources to support the team.
“We wouldn’t have been able to put our own program out there this summer,” said Utterback, who also coaches varsity baseball at Old Town. “I wasn’t going to commit to it financially again, and I don’t know if we would have enough interest from the two schools to put together a roster.”
Indeed, there is no Orono Twins team in American Legion Zone 1 this year, but a merger with the fourth-year Motor City program — which originally drew from John Bapst of Bangor and Bangor Christian — has produced a unified Motor City team that has qualified for this year’s zone tournament that begins Thursday at Husson University in Bangor.
No. 5 Motor City (8-8) will face No. 4 Lincoln Lumber (8-8) at 4 p.m. in the first of two Zone 1 play-in games, followed at 7 p.m. by No. 6 Hampden-Newport (8-8) against the No. 3 Acadians of Blue Hill (10-6).
The winners join No. 1 Bangor (14-2) and No. 2 Brewer (12-4) in the double-elimination part of the tourney Friday through Sunday.
Before Motor City formed a second Bangor Legion team in 2007, Orono attracted John Bapst or Bangor Christian players who did not earn spots on the Bangor roster and were free to find a second option.
In addition, players from the four schools that now feed into Motor City often compete together at the youth league levels, with many of those players from the Glenburn area that sends students to all four Motor City drawing schools along with Bangor High School.
And given that Motor City is affiliated with the American Legion post in Glenburn, the chance to bring those players into the same program proved appealing to all involved.
“This was an opportunity to bring together a lot of high school players who had already played with and against each other on area teams,” said John Diamond, general manager of the Motor City team. “It seemed like a natural fit.”
“It’s worked out very well,” he added. “We’re really happy with coach Utterback, and with [John Bapst coach] Shane Graham as one of his assistants there’s been a good blending of those programs and there have been good contributions from all of the schools.”
Motor City had two players on the 2010 All-Zone 1 first team, Chris Hammond from John Bapst and Casey Estes from Old Town. Cody Cross, also from Old Town, was a second-team choice, while Jonathan Johnson of Bangor Christian and Phil Benoit of Orono earned honorable mention.
“It just worked out that you could take two medium-sized Class B schools [Old Town and John Bapst], a medium-sized Class C school [Orono] and a small Class D school [Bangor Christian], draw from all of them and put together a competitive team,” said Utterback, now the Motor City head coach.
Motor City was 4-7 after a doubleheader split with Lincoln on July 3. But the team, which plays its home games at the University of Maine in Orono, won four of its last five games, capped off by a 2-1, 11-0 sweep of Penquis on Sunday that secured its playoff berth.
It’s a similar sense of urgency Motor City hopes to carry into the zone tournament.
“We’ve played it like that for the last week,” said Utterback. “We weren’t guaranteed getting in and we kind of knew we were up against it, but the guys battled and wanted to get to the playoffs, that’s been their focus all summer.”