ORONO, Maine — When the 2011 season ended at Chapel Hill, N.C., the upstart University of Maine baseball team didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The Black Bears were proud of reaching an NCAA regional, but they knew they had the potential to go further in the postseason.
Coach Steve Trimper’s squad hopes to take the next step in 2012. UMaine’s quest begins Friday when it opens the season against former UMaine standout Jack Leggett’s Clemson University squad.
UMaine should exhibit some similar dynamics to last year’s ballclub. It has a good mix of veterans, some up-and-comers and a handful of promising newcomers.
“I think the biggest thing that we’re bringing over is experience,” said junior co-captain Mike Fransoso. “We’ve been there. We know it’s a long, grueling season and what it takes to get back there.”
The Black Bears must replace three key performers in pitching ace Keith Bilodeau, dependable outfielder and leader Joey Martin of Portland and speedy center fielder Taylor Lewis.
Bilodeau accounted for 10 of the team’s 33 wins and the outfielders combined for seven home runs, 74 RBIs, 37 stolen bases and 77 runs scored.
Still, the Bears’ nucleus includes five All-America East second-team picks. They are junior pitcher Jeff Gibbs (8-5, 3.42 ERA), sophomore pitcher Shaun Coughlin (3-1, 2.37, 2 saves), shortstop Fransoso (.318, 5 HR, 33 RBI, 19 stolen bases), sophomore second baseman Troy Black (.363, 19 RBI) and sophomore third baseman Alex Calbick (.280, 5 HR, 30 RBI).
The mound staff has experience and depth with junior Steve Perakslis (6-4, 3.52), senior co-captain Jon Balentina (3-1, 5.31), senior A.J. Bazdanes (1-5, 5.04) and sophomore D.J. Voisine (1-1 3.16, 3 saves).
UMaine features proven senior performers in first baseman and co-captain Justin Leisenheimer (.309, 8 HR, 25 RBI) and his brother, left fielder and designated hitter Ian Leisenheimer (.313, 2 HR, 13 RBI) and sophomore catcher Tyler Patzalek (.275, 1 HR, 28 RBI).
Other returnees include sophomore catcher and DH Fran Whitten (.244, 5 HR, 20 RBI), an AE all-rookie pick, along with infielders Eric White of Brewer (.221, 7 RBI) and Mike Connolly (.248, 1 HR, 10 RBI) and outfielder Colin Gay (221. 10 RBI), all of whom are sophomores.
Outfielder Pat Thibodeau of Caribou has left the team and reserve catcher Matt Verrier of South Paris has transferred to the University of Southern Maine.
For UMaine, it starts on the mound, where the hard-throwing righthanders Gibbs and Perakslis could be a dominating 1-2 starter tandem. Righty Coughlin complements them with his finesse and control.
“We have quality arms,” Trimper said. “Whether we become an awesome pitching staff or not remains to be seen.”
UMaine’s prospects could hinge on the ability of lefty Balentina and righthander Bazdanes to exhibit better control and mound poise. Voisine is finally healthy after elbow surgery and will come out of the bullpen.
“I think we all have to step up, that’s the big thing,” Gibbs said. “Bilodeau did a great job of it last year and I think we all can step into that role and each one of us are going to have to do our part.”
Freshman righty Manny Pupo may contribute as a freshman, while Trimper plans to use both Connolly and Whitten in pitching roles. Freshmen Luke Morrill of South Thomaston and Scott Heath of Westbrook, who is coming off arm surgery, could also see time.
“We have to cut down on the number of walks,” Trimper said. “That’s the No. 1 focus of our baseball team; not scoring runs, hitting home runs.”
Senior lefty Kevin Scanlan did not return to the team.
UMaine is blessed with infield experience and versatility, which is anchored by the slick-fielding Fransoso at shortstop. Second baseman Black burst onto the scene as a freshman.
Justin Leisenheimer demonstrated his defensive prowess at first base last season, while catcher Patzalek and third baseman Calbick were dependable. White can play second or third and Connolly has worked out behind the plate in addition to backing up at third and short.
Whitten can catch, play right field or DH and Calbick or Morrill can fill in at first.
“We have to make sure that everybody understands their roles,” Trimper said. “We have such a great attitude on our team. The guys want to win, first and foremost.”
The outfield group is the biggest question mark. Ian Leisenheimer has experience in left, but Gay and Whitten were part-timers a year ago.
Freshmen Brian Doran and Sam Balzano of Portland are likely to earn time because of their speed and defensive prowess. Heath could earn time in the outfield or at first base and junior Robbie Trask of Saco has some experience.
The players who hit consistently are likely to play the most.
The return of the Leisenheimer twins for a fifth season provides a leadership presence on the club along with Fransoso and Patzalek. Trimper said the Bears have a discernible swagger, but without arrogance.
“This is a fun bunch to coach. They’re so driven right now to have more success,” he said.