Tucked in the northeasternmost corner of the northeasternmost state, Fort Fairfield High School has been noteworthy far beyond its local borders through its recent schoolboy baseball, basketball and soccer successes.
The Tigers’ last eight sports seasons have included the 2015 Class D state soccer championship and the 2015 Eastern Maine Class D basketball crown as well as three other regional final appearances — including both the Class D North soccer and Class C North basketball title games already this academic year.
Fort Fairfield is at it again. Entering the final week of the regular season, coach John Ala’s club (12-0) is one of two undefeated baseball teams remaining statewide along with Class A Falmouth.
“When you start winning you get more confident and it carries over,” said Ala, a fifth-grade teacher who has coached the Tigers’ varsity boys soccer and baseball teams for more than a decade. “Fortunately we have a number of athletes who play all three seasons. It’s a good group.”
All but three starters are back from last year’s team, which took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning of the Class D North final before yielding two unearned runs that rallied Penobscot Valley of Howland to the victory.
“These guys know for sure that they were right there last year,” said Ala. “They came in motivated this year and have passed that message down to the incoming freshmen that they want to get back to the final and then take the next step.”
Such motivation has been proven out statistically. The Tigers have averaged 14.1 runs per outing, and only four of their victories have gone the full seven innings.
“We score runs one through nine, our No. 9 batter [freshman right fielder] Colby Langner is hitting better than .300,” said Ala.
Fort Fairfield’s 19-player roster includes a unique mix of three seniors, seven juniors, one sophomore and eight freshmen.
“It’s a big team, which is a blessing, but also makes it kind of difficult when it comes to practice time and getting everyone enough reps,” said Ala.
The senior class features shortstop Ryan Player, perhaps better known as an all-state soccer player but also a defensive fixture as well as a productive cleanup hitter.
“He’s definitely a leader on the team, a real athletic kid who understands the game,” said Ala. “He’s a guy that you want the ball hit his way, and at the plate he’s got great bat speed and hits for a high average.”
Two classmates, Carter Bruce and Jonathan Bernard, play third base and pitch, with Bruce sharing much of the load on the mound with junior Jared Harvey, who started last year’s D North final and yielded one earned run on two hits.
“They’ve been great leaders for us,” said Ala.
The Tigers were able to start their season on schedule despite the late spring and considerable rainfall that left many schools behind for much of the last six weeks.
“I was very surprised that we were able to get our home opener in, but we did start on time,” said Ala.
“However, we only got outside to practice on our field the day before that game. We had a lot of practices in the gym this year.”
Fort Fairfield’s pursuit of the third baseball state championship in school history — the Tigers last won the Class D crown in 1994 and before that won it all in 1970 when they still competed in Class A — faces an always unpredictable run through the North regional field. It includes entries from three distinct regions: Aroostook County, Down East and north central Maine.
“I look at where we’re at right now and I’ve been down to see some of the other teams and I think we’re right there with everybody,” said Ala. “We know our strength of schedule this year hasn’t been quite what it’s been in past years, but I think we’re right there.”
Fort Fairfield is ranked second in D North behind Katahdin of Stacyville, with Woodland, Bangor Christian, Hodgdon, Shead of Eastport, Southern Aroostook and Penobscot Valley also among a deep field of contenders.
“I think we’re going to have to be able to adjust to the caliber of teams that we haven’t seen but know are out there,” said Ala.
As for remaining undefeated, that would be a bonus.
“It really doesn’t come up among the guys at all,” said Ala. “Our focus now is just how do we get better than we are. These guys understand that across the three sports we’ve been in the playoffs deep enough to know that your record doesn’t mean anything once you get there.”