HERMON, Maine — A group of 12-year-old baseball players are eagerly awaiting their turn to play in Cooperstown, N.Y., later this month.
Black Bear North, made up of 11 players from Greater Bangor and Hancock and Waldo counties, will compete Aug. 18-24 against 103 other teams from around the country at the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which the team receives tickets to attend as part of their trip.
“It’s right downtown from where we’re staying and playing,” said Emmett Shell of Montville, which is a few miles west of Belfast.
Zach Nash of Hermon, who went last year with a different team, was impressed with the Hall of Fame.
“It’s really awesome,” he said. “I’m a huge baseball fan and I wanted to go, so my dad and I went for a while.”
While the Hall of Fame is a bonus for making the trip, the team will actually be quite busy with its own baseball at the 22-field facility.
The opening ceremonies are Aug. 18, followed by skills competitions including fielding, base running and, most dramatically, the home run derby.
“It’s awesome. They hold it under the lights [at Dreams Park],” said Nash, who was impressed last year by the strength of the competitors. “Some of the kids crush the ball.”
Then it’s down to the games — two a day on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“After six games, they get ranked as a team,” said manager James Harmon of Surry, whose son, Bryce, is one of the 11 players.
A team’s first six opponents are determined roughly by alphabetical order, said Harmon. After the teams are ranked, they go through a single-elimination playoff process.
Organizers have conducted tourneys under this format every week since June 2. That means more than 1,000 teams mostly from the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, but they come from as far away as Hawaii.
Brett Hoogterp, the assistant principal and new athletic director at Old Town High School, has been planning this trip since last September.
“The first deposit is due the first of October, so you have to commit to do this by September of the year before,” said Hoogterp.
But he knew he was going to do it even before that. He took a team that included his son, Eric, a few years ago and he wanted to do it again with his son, Ryan.
“It’s an unbelievable experience for the kids,” he said.
Hoogterp started building the team last fall.
“I had coached several of these kids on an AAU basketball team, and I knew a lot of them played baseball,” said Hoogterp. “I got half of them from there, then I started asking other players to commit and they did.”
Shell was asked to join last fall, while Nash didn’t get asked until this year.
“I found out toward spring,” Nash said. “Three of my friends from Hermon, we all found out at the same time.”
The other team members are players Christian Greener and Jordan LaFrance of Hermon, Alex McKenney of Bangor, Taylor Schildroth and Stefan Simmons of Blue Hill, and Dylan Stanley and Casey Sudbeck of Hampden. Cory Schildroth is Harmon’s assistant coach.
Knowing well ahead of time made it easier for everyone to raise money for the trip.
They have recruited local sponsors and held a basketball tournament fundraiser in addition to their own contributions.
“It amounts to about $800 per player, and coach,” said Hoogterp. “But that includes meals, lodging, uniforms. Every player gets a bat bag, a pullover jacket plus the ticket to the Hall of Fame.”
Hoogterp chose this particular week because the Little League all-star state tourneys are over and school won’t have started yet.
Now, it’s up to James Harmon and Cory Schildroth to mold the individuals into a team.
Hoogterp had focused on getting pitchers because the number of games could cause a team to burn through them in a hurry.
“We have five or six of the best pitchers in central Maine,” said Hoogterp.
A lot of the players are going to end up in positions that they may have not played before or played very little, but because of their strong abilities, “I can focus more on advanced skills,” said Harmon. “I can put a microscope on hitting and fielding. I can challenge them in practice.”
And he believes they’ll absorb it.
“They all want to raise their game,” he said.
Shell, who pitched a perfect game for the Waldo County all-stars, thinks he’ll pitch only a little during the week.
“I expect to play a lot of positions,” he said. “… Maybe first base or center field [the most].”
Nash, who played for the Hermon Little League District 3 All-Stars, said, “Normally, I play in the infield. My top positions are shortstop and pitcher, but I’ve played pretty much every position [during his youth baseball years].”
They will have to make a couple of adjustments in the tournament. The bases are 75 feet apart and runners can take a lead off the bases.
“The pitchers are going to have to come up with a pickoff move,” said Hoogterp.
Harmon also finds himself pondering lineup possibilities that he couldn’t conceive of in his previous coaching posts.
“I feel like I’m going to have to make two lineups,” he said. “I’m going to have a cleanup hitter in the fourth spot and another in the eighth spot.”
Still, they’re under no illusion that the tournament will be a cakewalk for them because every other team is built similarly.
“The competition is really good,” said Nash. “They have a lot of good pitchers, and the hitters are even better.”
He had an up-close look at that last year.
“Every kid from Connecticut hit a homerun in the game” against them, he said.
“You do run into some very strong teams,” said Hoogterp, “but I do expect we’ll hold our own.”
He thinks they’ll enjoy it no matter what happens.
“We’re going to go down and have a great time,” he said.