Andrew Hillier and his University of Southern Maine teammates had high hopes for the 2018 baseball season.
The Huskies, long a powerhouse in NCAA Division III under 1,000-win head coach Ed Flaherty, came up one win short of returning to the Division III College World Series for the ninth time in program history last spring, but with a strong returning nucleus the Huskies were primed for another deep run this year.
That was the plan until USM had a stunningly short stay in last week’s Little East Conference tournament. The third-seeded Huskies exited the double-elimination event winless after back-to-back losses to No. 4 Rhode Island College and top-seeded host UMass Boston.
“We only stayed overnight one night and then we headed back the next day after the (UMass Boston) game,” Hillier said. “It really felt like nothing.”
Having lost five of their last six games, the potential to be left out of the 58-team NCAA Division III tournament field was real. But just after midnight Monday morning came news that USM’s 27-13 record and top-25 ranking for much of the spring was resume enough for a return to the national stage.
“I really had no idea what would happen because it was in the hands of a committee and that’s never good,” said Hillier, who learned of the development by text message after he woke up Monday morning. “But we had a really good season this year and beat a lot of good teams, especially in the Northeast, so I was pretty confident.”
USM is seeded third in the eight-team, double-elimination regional to be played at Falcon Park in Auburn, N.Y. The Huskies face sixth-seeded Amherst at 4:30 p.m. Thursday. SUNY Cortland, the 2015 NCAA Division champion and 32-10 this spring, is the host.
Hillier, a junior first baseman, ranks among the team leaders with a .341 batting average, three home runs and 23 RBIs in 30 games.
“The way we were playing we kind of needed a little extra light under our butts, but this has given us a second life and I think we’re going to make the most of it,” he said. “We haven’t been playing our best baseball but you never know, it can turn around in a heartbeat just like it went down in a heartbeat.”
Hillier arrived at USM after helping Bangor High School capture Class A state championships in 2014 and 2015 and was on the city’s Coffee News Comrades squad that won American Legion state championships both years.
He began his college career at USM as a pitcher but stopped playing as a freshman after the team’s Florida trip in early 2016.
Hillier returned to the Huskies last year, initially as a utility player until moving into the everyday lineup at first base late in the regular season. He batted .301.
This year he has been one of the steadiest of the Huskies both offensively and defensively.
“He’s a very good hitter, and he’s got a little power this year. He’s a baseball guy,” Flaherty said. “(And) from watching a whole year of him at first, you don’t realize as a coach how many runs a first baseman can save you because the ball’s there all the time in college.”
For Hillier, that is part of the appeal of playing first base.
“It’s just the fact that you’re in on pretty much every play,” said Hillier, a business management major who will have two years of baseball eligibility after this year.
USM will make its 24th appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1987. The Huskies won national championships in 1991 and 1997 and were the runners-up in 2013.
“We set out from the get-go to win a national championship,” he said. “The expectations have been pretty high, and now it’s like we have a second life to complete those goals and move our way through the postseason as far as we can.”
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