Lewiston, Dirigo seniors shine in big spots in WM baseball semifinals

Posted June 10, 2012, at 12:27 p.m.

Two great high school sports stories will make the transition from work-in-progress to historic work-of-art this week.

Greater still, the young men involved get to write the final chapters on their own terms.

Lewiston and Dirigo’s baseball teams held serve at love Saturday afternoon.

The Blue Devils made reservations at the Eastern Class A final for the second straight year after a 1-0 victory over Erskine. The Cougars cashed in a ticket to the Western Class C title game — raise your hand if you’ve heard that before, in this sport or any other — by handling Hall-Dale, 3-0.

Foregone conclusion, you say? Better do some market research.

Ask Bangor or Greely or Presque Isle. Top seeds, all. Each one shown the door Thursday in the quarterfinals.

Yes, we’ve come to expect Lewiston and Dirigo to make June their personal playground. But there’s arguably no tougher environment in which to hold up your end of the bargain as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed than the Maine Principals’ Association baseball playoffs.

It’s a funny game and a funny time of year. Itineraries are full. Conflicting emotions run rampant. If eyes don’t ache from crying at graduation, they’re sore from not sleeping after Project Graduation.

“Not a whole lot,“ Dirigo shortstop Caleb Turner said when asked how much sleep he enjoyed between Friday night’s commencement and Saturday’s noon knockout game.

Four Dirigo seniors and one class marshal left the sanctioned graduation party in Waterville at 2:30 a.m., well before their classmates, in order to steal a little extra shut-eye.

“They got home at about four o’clock, so that’s not too bad. I bought them some 5-Hour Energy,” Dirigo coach Ryan Palmer said with a wry smile.

By the grace of God and caffeine and the right arm of Ben Holmes, Dirigo lives on. Holmes pitched a two-hit shutout. He hasn’t given up an earned run in 29 consecutive innings of brilliance.

Nervous much?

“Of course,” Holmes said. “No matter how many times.”

Perhaps he’s being modest, because it’s hard to imagine any of the Cougars having a resting heart rate above 40 beats per minute at this point.

Dirigo will play in its third straight regional baseball final. Add that to four regional and state basketball championship games and a football state showcase in their high school careers.

Neither high-stakes poker nor low-intensity chess likely would intimidate the Cougars. Hard to imagine what does.

Turner stood near home plate at Harlow Park and recalled a conversation with Principal Mike Poulin prior to Friday night’s march into neighboring DeFoe Gymnasium.

“He said, ‘You nervous?’ I don’t even get nervous anymore,” Turner said. “I’ve been in five state games. Stuff doesn’t faze me now.”

Likewise, it takes more than a big crowd of friends and relatives, an elimination game or a disputed call to distract Lewiston.

Seven seniors have been part of two Maine American Legion championship teams. They’re two-time Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference champs.

Last year’s high school season ended with a loss to Cheverus in the state final. Hockey, football and basketball programs all prospered and played for championships during Shawn Ricker’s career.

“We’re just relaxed. Two minutes before a game, we’re not nervous,“ Ricker said. “We’re talking about a girl who’s walking by or something like that.”

Todd Cifelli has coached the Devils through multiple spring-summer cycles.

When a call at the plate might have cost Lewiston an insurance run Saturday, the coach could be comfortable losing a little bit of his mind, knowing that his players wouldn’t.

“Our guys do a pretty good job of staying in the present, no matter what happens and whether it goes our way or not,” Cifelli said. “It’s the residue from being involved in state championship games and Legion championship games.”

Luke Cote has stared down hitters from atop the hill in both of those environments. Nobody associated with the Devils was shocked when Cote chucked a two-hit shutout against Erskine.

The seeds of that success probably were planted in a pair of 2011 contests at Augusta’s Morton Field.

“After we lost in the state final last year, we got to the Legion state final against Augusta on the same field and he had that look on his face where he was demanding the ball,” Cifelli said. “We got to the ninth inning and all he said was, ‘Coach, don’t take me out.’

“If somebody held a gun to my head, I’d have no problem giving Luke Cote the ball for any game.”

This probably wasn’t the coach’s last chance to prove that.

Lewiston and Dirigo finish what they start. And both teams are enjoying the sight of blank pages in front of them.

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