DYER BROOK, Maine — There’s no looking back for this year’s Southern Aroostook Community School baseball team.
Instead, all eyes were on the future as the Warriors prepared to play their season opener at Hodgdon on Tuesday afternoon.
A look back would have included reflections on a trip to the 2012 Eastern Maine Class D championship game, where Southern Aroostook fell to eventual state champion Bangor Christian to end its season with an 11-5 record.
A look back also would have included thoughts about the controversy surrounding the only varsity baseball coach the school had known since its inception in 1973.
Murray Putnam was placed on paid administrative leave last May 15 and never returned, ending a 44-year coaching career during which his baseball teams amassed nearly 480 victories while he guided Southern Aroostook to five state championships and 10 Eastern Maine titles.
Putnam also served as athletic director for 39 years at the school, which serves the small towns of Crystal, Dyer Brook, Island Falls, Merrill, Oakfield and Smyrna.
His contracts with Southern Aroostook expired last June 30.
While school officials never stated publicly why Putnam was placed on leave, speakers at a RSU 50 school board meeting on June 11 made references to inappropriate pictures that were posted online after his team’s annual preseason baseball trip to Massachusetts in April. Speakers and some community members indicated that they believed the photos may have included possible instances of hazing, according to reports.
Players involved in the preseason incident reportedly were disciplined, and as head coach, Putnam had oversight responsibilities for the team.
This spring there was no preseason trip to Massachusetts. The team played its lone scrimmage last Friday at Houlton and practiced outside on its own field for the first time Monday.
By Tuesday morning, new varsity coach David Day was focused on his team’s immediate challenge, a matchup against 2-0 Hodgdon, a team he coached from 1999 to 2008.
“Everybody’s just trying to go forward,” said Day, who coached middle school baseball in the Southern Aroostook system for the last two years and also helped acting varsity head coach Robert Betschner fill the void created by Putnam’s absence late last season.
“We’re trying to get past it.”
Southern Aroostook had just 12 players on its roster for opening day, a group led by three players who garnered All-Aroostook honors last spring in junior catcher Will McGary, junior pitcher Trent Cullinan and senior outfielder Dylan Porter.
Porter is one of three senior outfielders who will start for the Warriors, along with Jesse Boulier and Mason Caron.
Parker Walker, a sophomore pitcher-shortstop who had two hits in last June’s Eastern Maine final, is another key returning player.
“Southern Aroostook has relied on hitting and defense over the years, and the question mark right now is our pitching,” said Day. “If you’re going to go pretty deep in the playoffs you’ve got to have 2 1/2 pitchers. We’ve got some good pitchers, but we had two strong starting pitchers who threw a lot last year and graduated so we a have a lack of experience there right now. It’s not that they can’t throw strikes, it’s the situational stuff they have to get used to.”
Day is optimistic that the Warriors — who are scheduled to visit neighboring Katahdin of Stacyville on Thursday before playing their home opener Saturday against Limestone/Maine School of Science and Mathematics — will improve steadily as they become more familiar with the adjustments inherent in playing for a new coach.
“I wouldn’t want to have to face us in the playoffs,” he said.