CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — One of the keys to the success of this year’s University of Maine baseball team has been its ability to stay cool under pressure.
With the sun beating down and temperatures in the 90s here Thursday, the Black Bears also will have to keep their cool in the literal sense.
UMaine plans to rely on its usual relaxed, confident approach as the program returns to the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship for the first time since 2006. It will be the first NCAA postseason game for any of the Black Bears.
“It’s just the same thing that we’ve been doing all year,” said senior co-captain Joey Martin of Portland. “We’ve played hard and had fun. That’s what I try to do every game. I don’t think (Friday) will be any different.”
Coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub (32-22) has the challenge of taking on the national No. 3 seed and regional host, the University of North Carolina (45-14). The Tar Heels are ranked as high as seventh in this week’s national polls.
UMaine and UNC square off Friday at 6 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional on Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium. The game can be seen on the UNC website at http://tarheelblue.cstv.com/allaccess/, or heard on WAEI (97.1 FM) or WABI (910 AM) radio in Bangor, or at GoBlackBears.com.
The Tar Heels finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division and went 1-2 in the league tournament held down the road at Durham, N.C.
The Bears captured the America East Conference title last week, going 3-0 in the double-elimination event at Stony Brook, N.Y. With it came the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tourney.
Trimper said his players have been able to effectively balance working hard and having fun.
“I’m trying to get our guys into the zone when it counts, when the lights are on,” Trimper said. “They’ve been doing such a great job of having a loose environment at certain times, but they also know when to lock in.”
Second-seeded Florida International (40-18-1), the Sun Belt Conference runner-up (No. 27 RPI), and James Madison (40-17) of the Colonial Athletic Conference champion (No. 56 RPI), open the regional Friday at 1 p.m.
The losers square off in an elimination game Saturday at 1 p.m., while the winners meet in the 6 p.m. contest.
UMaine appears unfazed by the prospect of playing North Carolina which is No. 1 in the NCAA Rating Percentage Index (RPI). That is one of the statistical measures used by the NCAA to seed teams for the 64-team tournament. Maine’s RPI is 162.
“Obviously, Carolina, the pressure’s going to be on them, so we can just go out and play our game,” said freshman second baseman Troy Black. “Whatever happens, happens. They’re supposed to win.”
Part of the reason the Bears don’t expect too many NCAA regional jitters is their familiarity with the surroundings. UMaine played a three-game series at Boshamer Stadium in 2010 and came away with one victory.
Martin is aware of some of the dynamics the ballpark presents. He said the infield seems to play well, while the short porch in right-center (the fence comes in to 355 feet around a light pole) is a potential issue for batters and fielders alike.
“You could see us swinging out there, the ball travels,” Martin said. “We’ve got to be aware of that in the outfield and maybe play a couple steps back.”
Obviously, the nine freshmen on the trip, including three potential starters among them, don’t have the same experience under their belts. And UMaine’s infielders must adjust to natural grass and dirt on the infield after playing 29 of their last 33 games on artificial turf.
The most important thing the Bears have working in their favor is confidence. UMaine has won five straight and 17 of its last 18 games since April 19.
Junior righthander Keith Bilodeau (10-2), who gets the start for the Bears on Friday, said that is a big factor.
“Ever since we went on a roll winning games, it’s become a lot easier for us just because we’ve been playing loose,” he said. “Basically, the whole team’s caught the drift that if everyone plays their role and does their own job, the pieces fall into place.”
Bilodeau has earned the spot as the Bears’ ace. The righthander from Bourne, Mass., has won eight consecutive starts — all against America East opponents.
During that stretch, Bilodeau has allowed 35 hits and 10 earned runs in 50 innings (1.80 earned run average) while striking out 38 and walking 19. He expects to be able to maintain a similar focus against the Tar Heels.
“It’s great to come down here and get the chance to play in front of a good crowd, at a brand-new facility,” Bilodeau said. “It’s perfect baseball weather. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Bilodeau will be opposed by freshman lefthander Kent Emmanuel, who is 6-1 with a 2.88 ERA. He has given up 80 hits and 26 earned runs in 81 1/3 innings while striking out 74 and walking 20.
Emmanuel has not had a decision in his last four appearance, but he has allowed more than three runs only once in 17 appearances.
UMaine goes into the game batting .323 against lefties this season, led by Fran Whitten (.414), Martin (.391), Justin Leisenheimer (.367) and Taylor Lewis (.365). Whitten, Lewis and Martin are all lefthanded hitters.