One of the most daunting challenges for University of Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper is setting a schedule that is competitive and cost effective.
Starting next season, his job and that of other America East baseball coaches will be a little easier.
America East athletic directors last week approved changes for the 2012 baseball season that include implementation of a 10-week, 30-game league schedule. The move will help conference teams fill early-season weekends with conference games.
America East teams will play each other six times, three at home and three on the road. The series will include a Saturday doubleheader consisting of a nine-inning game and a seven-inning contest, and a nine-inning game Sunday.
The previous system included an eight-week slate of Saturday and Sunday twinbills entailing one, nine-inning game and one seven-inning contest. It was put in place when Vermont dropped baseball after the 2010 season.
Expanding to 10 weeks means America East teams begin league play in mid-March, two weeks earlier than before. Trimper said that helps teams such as UMaine, Albany and Binghamton fill those weekends with league games rather than scheduling nonconference opponents that require considerable travel and expense.
“One of the most difficult things to do is to fill a nonconference weekend once all the other conferences start [league play],” said Trimper, whose squad often played against teams in the New York City area in March.
The new schedule gives each team 30 America East games. Previously, teams played two opponents six times each and the three others four times apiece for a total of 24.
“It wasn’t equitable,” said Trimper, whose UMaine team played four AE road series and three in Orono last spring. The Bears had two games rained out on their nine-hour trip to Binghamton.
“Playing certain teams a different number of times affected seeding and maybe even some team’s ability to qualify for the conference tournament,” he offered.
The arrangement means more home games for all. Last season, UMaine played only 10 league games at Mahaney Diamond. Next spring, weather permitting, the Black Bears will have 15.
Trimper said it has been virtually impossible to lure Division I teams to Orono for nonleague games, even with the offer of a substantial financial guarantee.
Starting the conference schedule in March may mean cooler weather and early-season field conditions, in some cases. Trimper said the intent is to have UMaine, Binghamton and Albany play at Maryland Baltimore County, Stony Brook (Long Island, N.Y.) and Hartford (Conn.) on the first two weekends in the hope of getting better weather.
The new format includes more scheduling flexibility and Trimper credited league coaches for their ingenuity and willingness to try new things.
For example, if during the first five weeks one team’s field is unplayable or the weather might preclude playing three games in two days, schools can mutually agree to flip-flop the home and away dates.
If a game is rained out during the team’s first series, schools may elect to extend their subsequent series to four games. Or, if bad weather is expected to affect a series, schools may work around it by playing Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday.
“When we looked at all the positives, including the student-athlete welfare, fairness, the ease of scheduleing and the flexibility of being able to deal with spring weather, those positives far outweighed the negative of starting earlier,” said UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott.
Another important dynamic of the revamped schedule of three-game series is reducing fatigue and stress on the student-athletes.
Trimper said the former system of playing two doubleheaders totaling 16 innings, on back-to-back days — in addition to a long bus ride — was taxing on players and coaches alike.
“It comes down to student-athlete welfare,” Trimper said. “On the road, you take batting practice at 10 in the morning, play a doubleheader, you’re done at 6 o’clock, then you shower and eat and start heading back home for a 12- or 14-hour trip. It was a long weekend.”
In the past, America East teams were required to remain on the road and play Monday if the action was rained out Saturday or Sunday. That meant teams such as UMaine could not try to save travel time, and in some cases money, by booking airline flights with a Sunday return and risk missing flights or having to pay fare change penalties.
Now, if a team flies to play road games and the Sunday game is postponed, the contest can potentially be played during the second meeting — or may not be made up at all.
There is no minimum number of AE games that must be played, according to Trimper.
The old schedule also created significant challenges for teams’ pitching staffs, which were sometimes stretched to the limit over the course of 32 or more innings. That made it harder for ball clubs to have enough quality pitching to be competitive during midweek games.
Trimper said UMaine expects to schedule a few more nonleague “home” games in the future, with some in southern Maine.
He praised America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen and Director of Championships/Sport Administrator Chad Dwyer and league athletic directors for their support and willingness to work with the baseball coaches.
“Chad Dwyer’s been doing a heck of a job as our sport supervisor and in September we’re going to have an in-person coaches meeting, which we haven’t had since my first year at Maine,” Trimper said.
Trimper pointed to 2012 league champion Stony Brook’s run to College World Series as evidence of baseball’s value in promoting America East.