Two eastern Maine teams are representing the state in their respective divisions’ Little League Baseball Eastern Regional tournaments, and they are relishing the opportunity to do so.
Waldo County Senior League and Bangor Junior League each won its state tournament at Mansfield Stadium within the last week, punching their tickets to regionals. The Senior League tournament starts Friday in West Deptford, N.J., and the Junior League tournament starts begins Saturday in Freehold, N.J.
“Getting to this point has meant a lot to our kids. Most of them have played together since 9-10’s, and they’ve worked really hard during that time, so to make it to a regional has been just fantastic,” Waldo Country coach Rick Rodgerson said.
Waldo County drew a buy in the first round, and begins tournament play Saturday at 2 p.m. against the winner of Friday’s Quincy, Mass./New York game. Bangor plays the third game Saturday at 4 p.m. against Brandywine Junior League of Wilmington, Del.
The Waldo Country team is composed of players from three different high schools including Hampden Academy, Mount View of Thorndike and Searsport. There were no other teams for them to play in District 2, so Waldo County was forced to get a waiver to bypass the district level and compete in the state tournament, according to Rodgerson.
Although they skipped their district tournament, the Waldo players possess a skill level that is no fluke. After losing its first game of the state tournament 7-6 to Scarborough on July 28, Waldo County won three games in three days to claim the Maine state title.
Last Saturday they got their revenge, beating Scarborough 11-1. Coastal beat Scarborough 9-5 on Friday, which put it in the driver’s seat heading into the championship, but Waldo County beat them twice — 8-2 on Sunday and 7-2 on Monday — to win the championship.
“We didn’t hit the ball real well in our first game and we didn’t deserve to win. But our hitting came on later in the tournament, which is something we were focused to work on,” Rodgerson said.
Waldo County is led by Matt Palmer, Dillon Corliss and Nick Rodgerson all of whom attend Hampden Academy, Adam Higgins of Mount View, and Buddy Ellis and Zach Beaudry of Searsport.
Cody Varney, a utility player from Hampden Academy, has also been solid for Waldo County in its all-stars run, according to Rodgerson.
Palmer was the story in Monday’s championship game, recording 10 strikeouts in six innings while giving up only one earned run and two hits to Coastal.
Bangor is led by aces Justin Courtney and Andrew Hillier. Courtney pitched in a 2-0 semifinal win over Ellsworth on Friday, and Hillier got the win over South Portland on Sunday, pitching 6 2/3 innings, striking out five and walking only one while giving up four hits.
Other notable players for Bangor include shortstop Jordan Derrah, who bats third and is what coach Jim Owens describes as “a solid hitter;” catcher Sam Huston, left fielder Caleb Pineo and right fielder Alec Coleman.
Owens mentioned that center fielder John Stanhope hasn’t played much baseball due to track commitments in the past, but he’s given Bangor ample production both and the plate and on defense this summer.
“John has really come along wonderfully,” Owens said. “He has been our leadoff guy and an emphasis to get us going at the plate, and has really developed into a good hitter.”
Seven players on the Bangor Junior League team — Ryan Brookings, Ben Chrichton, Courtney, Matt Duff, Sam Huston, Hillier and Nick Moore — have seen what competition is like at the regional level. They traveled to the Little League regionals in Bristol, Conn., with Bangor East the past two years, so they know what to expect, to a point.
That isn’t the mentality with which Owens, his staff and his team are approaching the tournament.
“I tell the kids it’s like climbing a ladder. States is harder than districts, regionals is harder than states and so on. You need to pick up the play and be more focused with every tournament,” Owens said.
Even though Waldo County hasn’t had much regional experience, Rodgerson and his players share a feeling similar to Bangor’s.
“They need to be ready to play. Nothing’s given to us, you know?” Rodgerson said. “We’re going to face a lot of players with skill levels we haven’t seen before, so we need prepare ourselves and keep that focus that has been consistent throughout the state tournament.”
And, like Rodgerson and Waldo County, hard work is what Owens credits hits team’s focus and solid play up to up to this point.
“It’s really a reward for these kids to have made it this far and go to regionals,” Owens said. “They have been practicing four or five days a week ever since school got out in June, and all that hard work has really paid off.”