The 2011 season was a study in hard work, resilience and cohesiveness for the University of Maine baseball team.
Utilizing three or four new starters, including a handful of freshmen, the Black Bears achieved the program’s best season since 2006.
Anchored by a talented, deep pitching staff and a core of veterans, coach Steve Trimper’s team (33-24) claimed its first America East title in five years, won a game at the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional and proved it could compete with top programs.
The Bears’ NCAA win Saturday over Florida International was only the second since UMaine won two games in the 1991 regional at Orono. Maine beat Southern Miss in 2005 at the Oxford Regional at the University of Mississippi.
One of the most gratifying, yet frustrating, aspects of the NCAA experience was the realization the Bears were a formidable challenger but won only once in North Carolina.
“In the locker room, we always knew how much talent we had and we never really doubted,” said freshman Troy Black. “It all just came together. It was nice to come out here and show the country that this team is good.”
One key dynamic was the ability and willingness of the veterans to embrace and guide a large class of first-year players. UMaine leaned heavily on veterans such as senior co-captain Joey Martin of Portland, junior co-captain Taylor Lewis and juniors Justin Leisenheimer, Ian Leisenheimer and Keith Bilodeau.
Martin, the only senior position starter in right field, served as the Bears’ quiet, confident leader. He batted .325 with four home runs, a team-high 46 runs batted in and stole 17 bases.
Lewis (.287-3-28, 20 SB) was productive as he utilized his exceptional speed in the outfield and on the basepaths. He is regarded as a strong pro prospect and is expected to be drafted this week.
The Leisenheimer twins gave UMaine some swagger with their experience and physical presence. Justin had a breakout season (.309, team-best 8 HR, 25 RBI, 14 HBP) and developed into an excellent first baseman.
Ian (.313, 2 HR, 13 RBI) split time between designated hitter and left field and came up with several clutch hits while adding a power threat.
Bilodeau, after dedicating himself to better fitness, became the Bears’ ace. The righthander went unbeaten in America East play en route to a 10-3 record, which tied the school record for wins, and a 3.04 ERA.
Bilodeau, who struck out 83 in 91 2/3 innings, also is projected to be drafted this week.
The defensive lynchpin, and another impactfull leader, was shortstop Michael Fransoso. He made a seamless transition from second base in 2010 back to shortstop after undergoing hip surgery in January.
Fransoso (.318, 5 HR, 33 RBI, 19 SB) was a stellar fielder, utilizing outstanding range, a strong arm and good instincts that were instrumental in racking up 56 double plays.
Sophomore catcher Tyler Patzalek (.275-1-28) provided ample two-way contributions. He also stressed the importance of an unselfish team dynamic.
Bilodeau headed a staff that gelled with time (4.36 team ERA, .248 opponent batting average) under pitching coach Jason Spaulding after cutting back on early-season walks.
Sophomore righties Jeff Gibbs (8-5, 3.42) and Steve Perakslis (6-4, 3.52) came on strong, while freshman righthander Shaun Coughlin (3-1, team-best 2.37 ERA, 2 saves) was a valuable contributor out of the bullpen.
Righthander A.J. Bazdanes (1-5, 5.04, save) was inconsistent and lefthander Jonathan Balentina (3-1, 5.31, saves), who missed 2010 after arm surgery, slowly re-emerged. Freshman righty D.J. Voisine (1-1, 3.16, 3 saves) saw significant duty as a reliever and showed promise.
Senior co-captain Joe Miller (0-1) struggled on the mound, but earned the respect and admiration of his teammates by working hard and exhibiting a positive, team-oriented attitude. Lefty Kevin Scanlan (1-1, 8.10) was used sparingly after sitting out the 2010 campaign.
Freshmen played important roles, led by second baseman Black. The lefthanded hitter led the team at .363 and had 19 RBIs after cracking the starting lineup midway through the season.
Black (two errors) demonstrated defensive flair while developing a chemistry with Fransoso.
Newcomer Alex Calbick (.280, 5 HR, 30 RBI) was a solid two-way performer at third base, while strong-armed freshman Mike Connolly (.248-1-10) chipped in as a part-time starter at third and second. Eric White of Brewer (.221, 7 RBI) was steady at second base.
Colin Gay (.221-0-10) started slowly, but improved with experience. The outfielder has good speed and had some clutch hits during the postseason.
Redshirt freshman Fran Whitten (.244-5-20) showed his versatility while catching and playing right field. He went 9-for-9 throwing out would-be base stealers.
UMaine got contributions from sophomore outfielders Pat Thibodeau of Caribou (.286, 5 RBI) and Robbie Trask of Saco (.250, 3 RBI) and frosh catcher Matt Verrier of Norway (.233, 2 RBI).
UMaine opened 5-12 before returning north, where it went 27-10, including 21-6 against league opponents. The Bears were 13-2 at Mahaney Diamond.
As the weather heated up, so did the Bears’ bats. And the pitchers cut way down on walks by challenging hitters and relying on the defense to back them up.
The Bears surged into the postseason with a sense of confidence and camaraderie.
“We just grinded back through some weather … really turning it around and staying positive and just working every, single day to get better,” Trimper said.
Looking ahead, UMaine may have several spots to fill. Martin has graduated, while Bilodeau and Lewis may forgo their senior year. The Leisenheimer twins are undecided about returning for another season as both will complete their degree work in communications in December.
Even so, the Bears should again feature a top pitching staff and have most of a deep, versatile infield unit returning.
“It’s a great experience for the team, for the young guys,” Martin said. “Next year they’ll come back knowing what it takes to win, knowing what it takes to come back (to a regional),” Martin said.