BANGOR, Maine — When Jesse Colford stepped to the plate Monday from the cleanup spot in the Bangor High School baseball team’s batting order, it marked a signature moment for the senior pitcher and third baseman.
Not that starting and hitting in the No. 4 spot for a 15-1 team that is the two-time defending Class A state champion isn’t a significant accomplishment on its own, but his was a high school baseball career that nearly didn’t get started at all.
Colford was a preseason cut from Bangor’s junior varsity tryouts as a freshman.
“It wasn’t good,” he said recently.
But rather than accept defeat and switch to another activity, Colford refused to give up on the sport he loves. The statistical results of his pursuit of a continuing baseball career reflect that passion.
He is batting .467 with team-high totals of 21 hits and 16 RBIs this spring for coach Jeff Fahey’s Bangor club, which is scheduled to host Edward Little of Auburn in Friday’s Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A championship game before proceeding to the Class A North quarterfinals on June 9.
Colford also has played nearly flawless defense at third base and been a valuable reliever on the Rams’ pitching staff with a 1-0 record and a 0.80 earned run average with 11 strikeouts in 9⅓ innings.
“He has the biggest heart of any kid I know,” said Bangor senior pitching ace Trevor DeLaite. “He loves to play baseball and he always wants to get better. He’s always asking questions and he’s just kept getting better and better and better.”
Colford never stopped playing after getting the bad news from the Bangor coaching staff in the spring of 2013, though there were a few moments of doubt.
“I gave a little bit of thought to [quitting baseball] but a lot of people told me to keep playing because they thought [getting cut] was a mistake,” said Colford. “I just kept playing a lot of baseball in the summer and came out again my sophomore year and made the team.”
Colford not only made the Bangor junior varsity as a sophomore, he went on that summer to pitch a shutout to lead the Coffee News Cadets past South Portland 1-0 in the Junior American Legion state championship game. He then played for Bangor’s 2014 Senior League World Series team that went undefeated in pool play and advanced to the world semifinals.
“He’s always worked hard, and his love for baseball I think helped him get to where he was his sophomore year,” said Fahey.
“My wife had him in seventh-grade social studies and she said that’s all he ever talked about was how he wanted to be a baseball player,” he added.
Colford finally earned his roster spot on the high school varsity as a junior, seeing limited action as a reserve outfielder but contributing more significantly out of the bullpen with a 2-0 record and a 1.00 ERA to help the Rams win their second straight state title.
“It meant a lot to make varsity because a lot of hard work had been put into it,” said Colford. “It feels good when it pays off.
“I was pretty confident that if I kept working hard something would happen.”
Colford moved up to the Senior American Legion ranks last summer and helped Bangor’s Coffee News Comrades repeat as state champions.
While he had already established himself as an important member of the high school pitching staff, his positional role on the varsity this spring was somewhat uncertain at the start of preseason practices despite his versatility — he had played second base, third base and in the outfield coming up through the ranks.
But it wasn’t long before Colford found his home at third base, where he has committed only three errors this season.
“He’ll take a ball in the chest for one, and he throws the ball well, he’s very accurate,” said Fahey of his decision to play Colford at third. “We had to make a position change early in the season or otherwise he might have been a pitcher-DH type, but now he gets to play every day and he’s really taken advantage of it.
“We tell our kids all the time that when you get your opportunity you’re going to need to take advantage and he certainly has done that.”
Colford also began the season toward the bottom half of Bangor’s batting order, but as his production has increased his place in the lineup has risen.
“To get from where he was, getting cut as a freshman, to batting cleanup as a senior I think speaks to his hard work,” said Fahey. “He doesn’t miss many pitches and he hits the ball hard most of the time.”
Colford attributes his upward mobility in the batting order to patience at the plate.
“I just feel really confident up there and I concentrate on putting the ball in play,” he said. “When you’re confident and you put the ball in play, something will happen.”
Colford has pitched primarily in short-relief stints this spring in support of DeLaite and fellow starters Peter Kemble and Nick Cowperthwaite.
But when Bangor struggled early during a recent game at Hampden Academy, Colford earned the win with five strong innings of relief.
It’s a role similar to the one the right-hander likely will have this postseason as Bangor seeks to become the first Class A baseball team to win three straight state championships since Deering of Portland (2007-2009).
“He’ll be one of the first ones we go to,” said Fahey, “because he throws strikes, he throws hard and he keeps the ball down.”
Colford admits his personal comeback from being cut has been satisfying, but while that memory lingers, any hard feelings have dissipated.
“It goes away year after year because you get close with the guys and they don’t really care about it,” he said. “But it feels good to play and contribute because you’re doing something for your team.
“You just hope to keep it going.”