March 24, 2019
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Hosting regional tourney may portend future Junior Legion baseball growth

Pete Warner | BDN
Pete Warner | BDN
Members of the Orono High School baseball team and their fans celebrate after Connor McCluskey scored the winning run to cap a four-run, seventh-inning rally to beat Lisbon 4-3 in the Class C baseball state championship game at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor, June 17, 2017.

BANGOR, Maine — The final day of organized youth baseball for the summer at Mansfield Stadium had a low-key aura compared to recent years, even though a title was at stake.

But while the Junior American Legion Northeast regional championships may have lacked the cache of the Senior League World Series and its nationally televised final game that has been held here for the previous 15 years, it didn’t lack for passion among those who contended for the top prize.

“It was a great experience, worth the four-hour drive,” said Franklin (Massachusetts) Post 75 coach Tyler Pasquarosa after his team’s 14-0 victory over host Skowhegan Post 16, which came just before Newmarket (New Hampshire) Post 67 won the title with an 8-4 victory over Stratford (Connecticut) Post 42.

“I told the kids anytime you get an opportunity to represent Massachusetts in the New England regional for their age group it’s a great opportunity and great accomplishment, so I wanted to make sure they play hard this weekend.”

The Massachusetts state runners-up scored seven runs in the top of the fourth inning to break open the battle for third-place in the three-day eight-team event against Skowhegan, the host club.

The winners pounded out 20 hits during the seven-inning game while Franklin righthander Michael Reissfelder pitched a complete-game four-hitter against a Skowhegan Post 16 team that finished the tournament with a 1-2 record.

Braden McCarthy had two hits for Skowhegan while Eric Wescott and Caleb Bridges each added a single.

Despite back-to-back losses after a 6-0 victory over Rhode Island champion Auburn Post 20 on Friday night, members of the Skowhegan party found some reason to smile this weekend.

“This is the cream of the crop of this age group,” said Bruce Wescott, Eric’s father, “and my boy couldn’t wait to get here to play every day knowing what he was going to face.”

American Legion baseball officials hope another by-product of hosting the Junior Legion regional in eastern Maine for the first time will be to enhance a recent expansion locally in this baseball division for youngsters ages 13-17.

This summer saw the addition of Junior Legion teams in Hampden, Dover-Foxcroft and the Ellsworth-Blue Hill area (Acadians) to go with previously existing clubs in Bangor and Skowhegan.

“I got a call from Machias this weekend about playing in the league next year,” said Junior Legion state commissioner Rod Stevens. “That tells you about the exposure of playing here and how it can help.

“You head down beyond Ellsworth, down along the coast. There’s not much of a Legion baseball presence there at all right now.“

Maine fielded 18 Junior Legion teams this summer divided into nine-team North and South divisions. That membership included state champion Thirsty Turf Irrigation of Portland, which defeated Auburn Post 20 8-5 in the sixth-place game that began Sunday’s tripleheader.

That compares with a much larger number of Junior Legion teams in some other New England states.

“There’s over a hundred Junior Legion teams in Massachusetts,” said Pasquarosa. “I think the word is getting out that it’s getting better and better and the competition is great.”

While attendance at this regional didn’t approach the numbers for the seven-day Senior League World Series tournaments held in Bangor from 2002 through 2016 before being moved this year to Easley, South Carolina, Mansfield Stadium director Dave Mansfield said he was “pleasantly surprised” with the turnout.

Mansfield expressed an interest in hosting the Junior Legion regional annually, though current practice is for the host site to be rotated each year among the five New England states — all but Vermont — that send teams to the tourney.

The regional figures to become more attractive beginning in 2018, when the winner advances to a first-time Junior League World Series in Shelby, North Carolina.

“The only way you can build attendance and participation and excitement is to have it in one place,” he said. “I think the Eastern Maine basketball tournament proves that.”

But even if Junior Legion officials don’t opt for a more permanent Northeast tournament site — Maine is scheduled to host again in 2022 — its presence in the Queen City this weekend may portend future growth of the baseball franchise in this part of the state.

“I think it’s a great feeder program when it’s used right for those kids in transition, the 14- and 15- and 16-year-olds who are right on the cusp of (Senior) Legion ball,” said Wescott. “Instead of being a bench player in (Senior) Legion, this gives them good experience because they’re good enough to play at this level before moving next year to play with Senior Legion kids who are 17 or 18 or sometimes even 19 years old.

“That’s a big step for those kids, so I think it’s wonderful for this younger age group to have an elite program like this to play in.”

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