The University of Maine baseball team hasn’t had a winning season since 2013.
But interim head coach Nick Derba is optimistic as his team opens the season with a three-game series at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Derba, 31, is in his fourth season with the program and was named to replace Steve Trimper, who left in December after 11 seasons to take the head coaching position at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
“We should be better across the board,” said Derba, who believes his team is a legitimate contender in America East despite being picked fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The Black Bears are coming off a 20-35 season, 8-15 in America East. They went 1-2 in the conference tournament after going 0-2 the previous two postseasons.
Derba has 13 returnees and that list includes America East All-Rookie team picks Danny Casals, Colin Ridley and Jeremy Pena, who were the team’s top three hitters a year ago.
Third baseman Casals hit .310 with three homers and 21 runs batted in. He led the team in hits (62), total bases (91), triples (4) and on-base percentage (.404) and was second in runs scored (33).
Left fielder Ridley hit .299 and led the team in RBIs with 42 and slugging percentage (.497) while sharing the team lead in homers with six. He was second in doubles (13) and was tied for second in total bases (88).
Derba said Ridley had surgery on his hand this week and will be sidelined for three weeks. Senior Lou Della Fera (.245-1-3) will get the first shot at replacing him.
Shortstop Pena hit .283 with a homer and 15 RBIs and he topped the team in runs scored (36) and was second in hits (58) and stolen bases (11). Senior Tyler Schwanz was the team’s fourth-leading hitter (.267-5-25) and he returns in right field. He was the doubles leader with 19 and was tied for second in total bases with 88.
The other returning starter is sophomore second baseman Caleb Kerbs (.223-1-8).
Three promising Florida junior college transfers will start as Brandon Vicens, who played for the UMaine football team last fall, will start in center field and Chris Bec and Jonathan Bennett will split the catching and designated hitter spots.
“Brandon is an incredible athlete. He is a real good center fielder who has a lot of pop in his bat,” said Derba, who added that Vicens will supply them with stability in center field which they didn’t have a year ago. “Chris and Jonathan are both very good defensive catchers who are middle-of-the-lineup type of hitters.”
He added that Bec and Bennett have definitely strengthened the catcher position over a year ago.
Florida freshman Hernen Sardinas will start at first and Derba said he is a good hitter “who has come a long way defensively.”
Freshman Kevin Doody, who will be the fourth outfielder while Ridley is sidelined, can also play the infield.
Despite the fact there are a few injury concerns on the pitching staff, Derba said his staff is “much deeper than last year.”
Two of the pitchers who had been pencilled in as members of the starting rotation, juniors John Arel (2-9, 3.94 earned run average in 2016) and Chris Murphy (0-4, 6.05), have been sidelined. Arel has been having issues with bone spurs in his arm and Murphy is still experiencing some discomfort from Tommy John surgery he had a couple of years ago.
Derba said he isn’t sure how long either will be sidelined.
Junior Justin Courtney of Bangor, a freshman All-American two years ago, is back and healthy after being limited to just eight appearances a year ago because of tendinitis. He was 5-6 with a 3.24 ERA as a freshman to earn All-America East second-team honors and a berth on the All-Rookie team.
Sophomore Nick Silva (3-3, 5.89) led the team in saves with four but is being moved into the starting rotation. Saco senior Jeff Gelinas (0-2, 9.15) is taking over as the closer at the start.
“Jeff throws strikes, he can run it up there 93-94 mph and he has one of the best breaking balls I’ve seen,” Derba said.
Courtney and Silva will each start a game at Winthrop as will Cumberland junior Jonah Normandeau (1-2, 4.50), who had seven starts and six relief appearances last year.
Bangor freshman lefty Trevor DeLaite and Bingham freshman righty Cody Laweryson have impressed Derba and will get some opportunities to start as well as relieve as will Lewiston sophomore lefty Eddie Emerson. Junior righty Zach Winn has been a pleasant surprise, and Brewer freshman Matt Pushard is also in the mix.