GORHAM, Maine — University of Southern Maine baseball coach Eddie Flaherty is giving shortstop Sam Dexter the highest of compliments when he calls him “the best freshman I’ve ever had.”
Flaherty is in his 28th season at USM and his Huskies will be going to the eight-team, double-elimination NCAA Division III World Series in Appleton, Wis. this weekend.
USM, which has a school record 42 wins (42-8), will take on 38-12 Millsaps College (Miss.) in their tourney opener on Saturday at 11 a.m.
It will be USM’s eighth CWS appearance and first since 2001. The Huskies won NCAA titles in 1991 and ‘97.
Dexter was flattered by his coach’s compliment.
“That’s a pretty big statement,” said Dexter, a former three-sports star at Oakland’s Messalonskee High School. “I don’t know about that. There have been a lot of great freshmen here.
“I’ve just been playing hard and trying not to complicate things,” he added.
Dexter, who has been the starting shortstop from day one, was chosen the Little East Conference and D3baseball.com All-New England Region Rookie of the Year. He is currently hitting .356 and set team and conference records with 22 doubles. He also has four homers, 33 RBI, 49 runs scored and 13 stolen bases.
“He can hit, hit with power; he can run a little bit and he’s as solid as you can get defensively. He can make spectacular plays,” said Flaherty. “And his game savvy is way beyond his years.”
Dexter constantly tries to pick up pointers from his coaches and teammates and by watching the game closely.
“I try to learn as much as I can. I want to know where the ball is likely to be hit. It’s important. Every step counts,” said Dexter whose two-run homer in the three-run ninth inning rally led USM to a 5-2 win over Endicott (Mass.) in the New England Baseball Championship Tournament that forced a title game with Endicott that was won by USM 9-0.
“That was a pretty big hit in my career,” said Dexter.
Dexter had considered playing football or hockey at a Division III school but said he thought “baseball was the best route.”
He has no regrets.
“I love baseball more,” said Dexter, who added that he took a “beating” playing football and baseball in high school.
“Playing just one sport has made things easier for me. I can work on my swing and my fielding and we also lift weights,” said Dexter.
The other key first-year contributor for USM has been all-purpose pitcher Andrew Richards from South Portland.
The sophomore right-hander transferred to USM from Southern Maine Community College and turned in a remarkable feat last Saturday when he pitched a five-hit complete-game shutout to beat Western New England 7-0 in the first game before going 5 ⅔ innings in the second game against Endicott in the 5-2 victory. He allowed six hits and one run.
Flaherty said he has the luxury of using Richards in any situation and he knows he is going to get a quality outing.
“Whenever there is a problem, no matter what inning it is, you can depend on him,” said Flaherty. “He has great movement on his pitches and he has a good breaking pitch.”
Richards has appeared in 30 of USM’s 50 games and has a 9-2 record with one save and a 1.93 ERA. He has struck out 50 in 79 ⅓ innings and has walked only eight.
Richards said throwing 14 ⅔ innings in his two wins last Saturday didn’t bother him.
“My arm never gets tired,” said Richards, who had always been a starting pitcher until he came to USM.
But he now prefers relieving.
“It has been great. I love to pitch every day,” said Richards who said he “lives off my two-seam fastball.
“It runs in on righthanded hitters,” said Richards. “My slider is my second pitch. I also throw a changeup. I just try to throw strikes and keep the ball at the knees. If I get the ball up, I get hit.”
The 59-year-old Flaherty said his team has “good balance” and the pitching has been “much better” than expected.
“We have a solid lineup one-through-nine, we can hit with power and we have 139 stolen bases,” pointed out Flaherty.
Besides Dexter, among the other offensive catalysts have been All-New England Region Player of the Year and LEC Co-Player of the Year Tucker White (.411-10-56, 9 triples, 35 stolen bases), the left fielder; 3B Nick Grady (.417-2-59, school-record 90 hits) from Whitfield and Gardiner DH-OF Forrest Chadwick (.388-7-39).
LEC and All-New England Pitcher of the Year Logan Carman (school-record 12 wins, 12-0, 1.62 ERA), a lefty, headlines a deep pitching staff along with Richards.