HAMPDEN, Maine — The Hampden Academy baseball team didn’t find its groove last spring until it was almost too late.
A pedestrian 8-8 regular season left the Broncos clinging to one of the final playoff berths in Eastern Maine Class A.
But eighth-seeded Hampden then defeated No. 9 Edward Little in the preliminary round, followed by a stunning 3-2, 11-inning upset of top-ranked Bangor in the regional quarterfinals.
The Broncos’ season ended in the semifinals, but only after a 3-2, eight-inning loss at Messalonskee of Oakland — which went on to win the state championship.
“We came in with that heart and drive because we wanted to win, and we come back with that this year,” said Hampden senior shortstop Cooper Antone. “We were so close.”
Much has gone right for baseball in greater Hampden since the Broncos’ postseason run.
The local Senior League team is coming off an appearance in last August’s Senior League World Series in Bangor.
And the athletic complex surrounding the new Hampden Academy includes an additional baseball field that will take some of the load off Bordick Park, which previously had been home to all practices and games for high school, middle school and any summer teams that required a full-sized diamond.
Perhaps best of all in the short term, this year’s Hampden varsity baseball squad suffered few graduation losses, and those returning players will be reinforced by several younger players off that Maine District 3 champion Senior League squad.
“The number one thing I like about the guys this year is that from the first day of tryouts before the teams were picked, you could see their work ethic and focus,” said sixth-year Hampden coach McLean Poulin. “They were ready to go.”
“We’ve been stuck here in the gym, [Thursday] was the first day we’ve been able to get outside at all because [Bordick Park] is not ready yet, but as tedious and painful as it is to stay in the gym, they’ve kept their mindset and kept working hard.”
That single-mindedness is seen as a direct result of Hampden’s late-season success in 2012 and the fine line between victory and defeat the Broncos experienced during their two extra-inning playoff games.
“It’s definitely about mental focus,” said Antone. “You’ve got to show up, and everybody’s got to be there. One mental mistake can cost you the game, especially in tight games.”
The Broncos will rely heavily on a pitching staff anchored by senior Matt Palmer and junior Matt Martin, both key members of the school’s recently crowned undefeated Class A state championship basketball team.
Both tall righthanders — Palmer stands 6 feet, 4 inches, while Martin is 6-2 — hope there is some residual confidence that carries over as they make the switch from the hardwood to the diamond.
“Coming off a state championship and an undefeated season you’re thinking, ‘I haven’t lost yet my senior year,’” said Palmer. “You’re thinking you want to keep it going and everyone else here is the same way, they hate losing, so you just have to keep fighting to win.”
Palmer and Martin will team with two other teammates from last summer’s Senior League roster, junior Michael Ward and sophomore Tristan Gardner, to provide much of Hampden’s strength on the mound.
“I’m very happy with our pitching depth,” said Poulin. “The big thing I preach to them is as long as you go out and throw strikes, we’ll let the rest of it fall where it may.”
Antone, a fourth-year varsity starter, provides much of the leadership for the Broncos.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” said Poulin. “He comes and gives everything he’s got. He brought that mentality here as a freshman and he’s used that to get to where he is.”
An additional veteran presence comes from Palmer, a third-year starter who also splits time with Martin at third base, and senior center fielder Nick Rodgerson, also a third-year starter.
“We’re pretty deep this year. I think we’re a lot deeper than we were last year,” said Palmer. “We’ve got a lot of young arms, and with only losing two starters, we’re pretty deep this year and we’re going to be even deeper next year.”
Rodgerson, for one, prefers not to wait until next year when he’ll be a first-year civil engineering student at the University of Maine.
“It’s always rough knowing it’s your last year because next year I don’t know what I’ll be doing with my time,” he said. “So you’ve just got to live for today and give it all you can.”
And that’s essentially the message being emitted throughout Hampden’s preseason practices, to concentrate on the moment.
“The way I look at it, so far in the first two weeks, the boys have come in focused and ready to work hard,” said Poulin. “We need to continue with that same kind of focus and work ethic, and not only that, but we really need to concentrate on our hitting. If we can get the bat on the ball and get some guys on base, that’s going to be a key for us.”
“But as long as they continue that hard work, good things will happen.”