VESTAL, N.Y. — Experience and maturity are key elements in producing a championship-caliber college baseball team.
The University of Maine didn’t have quite enough of either during the 2010 season.
Coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears (34-22) posted the most wins since UMaine’s NCAA tournament entry in 2006. And the Bears qualified for the America East tourney for the first time in three seasons, but they were eliminated in two games by No. 3 Stony Brook and top seed Binghamton.
With a lineup that included as many as three freshman position players and two first-year starting pitchers, UMaine took what it believes is a step in the right direction toward becoming a championship contender.
“We never made it here [to the postseason] and never got to experience it, but now with that experience, hopefully we can figure it out and go out and win,” said co-captain Matt Jebb, who will be among five seniors in 2011.
Trimper believes UMaine demonstrated progress in reaching the America East Baseball Championship.
“We played one of the better schedules around and still we were able to put up 34 wins and let this group that’s coming back, which is predominately a young group, come in and get this [postseason] experience,” he said.
At the same time, Trimper is far from satisfied with the program’s recent performance.
“We have lofty goals,” Trimper said. “You represent so many people when you wear ‘Maine.’ I think of [former standouts] Joe Ferris, Dennis Libbey, Mike Bordick and Mike Coutts and all these people that have done things [for the program] and we just want to live up to their standards.”
UMaine needs to improve its focus, intensity, execution and poise. The Bears had difficulty in close games and in situations where they needed to come from behind.
UMaine was 4-7 in one-run games and 9-12 in games decided by two runs or less. The Bears were 32-0 when leading after six innings, but only 1-20 when trailing after six innings.
UMaine’s starting pitching was somewhat erratic. In America East play, UMaine ranked second with a 4.53 earned run average, but the Bears were prone to early-game struggles.
However, there ultimately wasn’t an ace after freshman Jeff Gibbs (5-4, 3.94, 72 strikeouts) tired down the stretch. He was an all-conference second-team and all-rookie choice.
Classmate Steve Perakslis (4-4, 6.33, 53) was up and down making the transition to Division I and also wore down. Sophomore A.J. Bazdanes (7-5, 5.05, 66) settled in during conference play, but fought control issues.
Jebb (3-3, 5.14, 38) struggled early, then was good late, while sophomore Keith Bilodeau (4-2, 5.98, 36) overcame a sore arm to pitch well over the final month. Bazdanes and Bilodeau were second-team all-stars.
The Bears pitched around the unavailability of four players who were coming off elbow surgery. Junior lefty Jon Balentina didn’t pitch at all, while former ace Joe Miller, a righty with one more year of eligibility, along with senior Jimmy Cox of Bangor and sophomore righthander Kyle Benoit, combined to work only 18ª innings in 2010.
Senior relievers Justin Latta (4-2, 3.13, 5 saves), who set the UMaine single-season record with 30 appearances, and Barry Keiffer (3-1, 4.14) were an outstanding righty-lefty combo at the back end of the bullpen. Latta was a first-team all-star.
If everyone returns in good health, and senior lefty Kevin Scanlan is eligible, next year’s pitching staff could be one of UMaine’s most talented and deepest in years.
“With a bunch of the older guys coming back from the injuries, their pitching staff is going to be solid next year — better than we had this year,” said outgoing senior catcher Joe Mercurio, a first-team choice.
Offensively, sophomore center fielder Taylor Lewis (.369, 5 HR, 52 RBIs, 21 stolen bases) earned All-AE first-team honors. He was backed by Mercurio’s career-best season (.360, team-high 12 home runs, 19 doubles, 58 RBIs), which offset the struggles of fellow co-captain Myckie Lugbauer (.211).
UMaine was often stymied by AE teams’ top pitchers, instead getting to opponents’ lesser starters and their bullpens.
First-team choice Patane also had his best offensive year (.330, 4 HRs, 47 RBIs, 18 doubles) and was the lynchpin of a middle infield that turned 67 double plays, four off last year’s school record.
Junior first baseman Joey Martin of Portland (.332, 3 HRs, 46 RBIs) enjoyed his best offensive season as did senior RF Matt Howard (.358, 2 HRs, 22 RBIs, 14 SBs). Howard has another year of eligibility.
Two freshmen burst onto the scene and proved themselves capable, earning all-rookie recognition. Designated hitter-third baseman Tyler Patzalek, who will catch next spring, hit .323 (2 HRs, 31 RBIs). Slick-fielding second baseman Michael Fransoso, who is expected to move back to his natural shortstop position in 2011, batted .300 (3 HRs, 30 RBIs, 16 SBs).
Led by Lewis and Howard, the Bears exceeded expectations with 81 steals in 98 attempts (.827). Still, they were prone to baserunning miscues.
Sophomore outfielder Ian Leisenheimer (.278, 5 HRs, 30 RBIs) and twin brother Justin (.291, 6 HRs, 22 RBIs) were steady contributors. Freshman outfielder Pat Thibodeau of Caribou (.324, 6 RBIs) showed promise, while soph infielder Kyle Stilphen of Pittston, bothered by shoulder injuries, finished at .238 (2 HRs, 10 RBIs).
In looking ahead, the Bears will build around several returning position starters, including up to six upperclassmen.
The incoming recruiting class includes third baseman Alex Calbick, catcher-infielder Matt Verrier of South Paris, outfielder Colin Gay, infielder Troy Black and pitcher Shaun Coughlin, all of whom could compete for playing time.
The Bears will also have the services of redshirt Fran Whitten, a catcher who may also play the outfield.
“We made a stride this year,” Trimper said. “We haven’t been in the tournament the last couple years, and obviously we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to here, but it’s a learning experience. We know what it takes.”