ROCKLAND — As much as Joey Nelsen is thriving on the solid start of the Rockland District High School baseball team this spring, there’s also a melancholy air about the senior first baseman as he considers the reality that he’s one of the last athletes donning the school’s black-and-orange uniforms.
For RDHS and neighboring Georges Valley of Thomaston will merge into Oceanside High School this summer, and Rockland Tigers and Georges Valley Buccaneers will be replaced by Mariners, and the school colors of the past will be replaced by the light blue, dark blue and white of the consolidated school.
“I’m a senior so I’m not going to see it next year,” said Nelsen, “but I’ve definitely been around it, everybody talks about it all over the school. It’s going to be weird. Me and Luke [Morrill] and the rest of us seniors aren’t going to have a place to come back to.”
No doubt there still will be alumni get-togethers for RDHS graduates, and this year’s baseball team hopes to give them something to talk about long into the future.
It’s called “The Final Roar,” a phrase embroidered on the back of the baseball caps worn by the team’s 13 players and their coaches this season.
“This is it,” said Morrill, a senior pitcher and shortstop. “After this there’s no more Rockland Tigers so we want to make a run and put a memory in everyone’s heads.”
Rockland entered Tuesday’s play ranked third in Eastern Maine Class B with a 9-4 record after having its five-game winning streak ended in a 12-5 loss to Western B power Lincoln Academy of Newcastle on Monday..
“We knew we were going to be a playoff-caliber team,” said Morrill. “Me and Joey Nelsen came in, worked hard in the off-season and got everybody on the same page. We’re the two captains, and we were telling everybody that since this is the last year of the Rockland Tigers we wanted to make a good run at it.
“We’re doing that so far, we just have to stay level headed. You can’t get too high on the wins, you can’t get too low when you lose. We just want to make a good run to the playoffs.”
The lefthanded-hitting Morrill, who plans to continue his baseball career at the University of Maine this fall, led the Tigers in nearly every offensive category at the beginning of the week, including batting average (.588), runs (20), hits (20), RBIs (16), stolen bases (15) and intentional walks (7), all while batting out of the second spot in the lineup.
The 6-foot-4-inch righthander also is 3-1 on the mound this spring after a five-inning two-hitter during a win over Medomak Valley of Waldoboro last Friday.
“Luke is the heartbeat of this baseball team,” said Rockland coach Joe Nelsen. “Whether he’s playing shortstop, whether he’s pitching or whether he’s hitting, he makes everyone around him that much better. He’s something special, and it’s been nice to watch him over these last four years.
“He just works very hard out there, and he’s a very coachable kid, too. He listens to his coaches, he’s respectful, and he’s always willing to give you that extra.”
Joey Nelsen, the son of the head coach, has moved to first base this spring after a knee injury ended his days as the Tigers’ starting catcher and is batting .412, while classmate Jake Perry (.344) is another top hitter while Steve Widdecombe teams with Morrill at the front of the pitching rotation.
“I wasn’t sure how we’d do this spring,” said coach Nelsen. “I knew I had a strong core with Luke and Joe and Jake Perry and some of the other seniors. I was just waiting to see how some of the juniors and sophomores would do, and I also had a freshman catcher that I’m platooning.
“But they’re resilient, they don’t get down and they keep going at it. I’m very pleased with the whole situation coming to the end. I told the kids at the beginning of the year that it’s up to them to write their own final chapter to Rockland baseball.”
That chapter already includes a victory over defending Class B state champion Waterville that has served as a springboard toward the team’s upper-echelon ranking.
“Waterville is top-notch, they’re state champs, but they came in here and we played a great 5-4 game and beat them,” said Morrill. “That turned the page for all of us. We knew we had a good team on our hands.”
The long-range goal for this short-term program is to win the school’s first state title in baseball since 1989, but the players are trying to focus on much shorter-range goals.
“Me and Luke have always wanted to win states since we were little kids because we’ve been friends forever,” said Joey Nelsen. “But we’re taking it one game at a time. We’ll see what happens, but hopefully we’ll keep rolling. It’s been nice to win a few.”
Then there’s the nostalgic blending of past and present for a baseball program that will be resigned to the history books once this season ends.
Take the Morrill family. Luke’s father Casey is an assistant coach on this year’s team, which plays on a field named after Luke’s grandfather Bob Morrill, who coached at Rockland for nearly four decades.
“There’s a lot of history here,” said coach Nelsen. “I played back in the 1980s for Rockland. We won a state championship my senior year, and [Casey] Morrill’s dad was my coach then, and now his grandson is on the team.
“Joey’s on the team now, too, and with most of the other kids their parents played for coach [Bob] Morrill. My three other assistants also are all Rockland alumni, so it’s really a Rockland ‘last roar’ deal going on, and we’re just relishing it.
“The kids are going out and giving their best effort, and that’s all I can ask of them.”