Baseball players from Bangor and Brewer high schools were in separate parts of the state Saturday achieving the same goal — winning a state championship.
Barely 24 hours later, many of the same players were teammates helping the Coffee News Comrades begin the defense of their 2017 American Legion baseball state championship with an 11-2 victory over the Trenton Acadians.
Class B state champion Brewer High School’s presence on the Class A state champion Bangor-based Comrades’ roster stemmed from the inability of the Brewer Falcons to field their own Legion entry this summer for the first time since the mid-1980s.
The inability to generate sufficient financial support was at the heart of the Falcons’ demise after the team’s general manager was called up to active military duty overseas, according to American Legion Zone 1 commissioner Dave Paul.
“Hopefully it’s a one-year thing for Brewer,” said Coffee News coach Dave Morris. “They should have a program.”
Morris said six members of the 18-member Comrades squad are affiliated with Brewer High School.
The loss of Brewer leaves Zone 1 with just five Senior Legion entries — Coffee News, Motor City of Old Town-Bangor, the newly united club representing Post 51 of Oakland and Post 16 of Skowhegan, and the Trenton Acadians, where players from Bucksport High School who previously were part of Brewer’s drawing area can join this year.
Those teams will play a 16-game regular-season schedule leading to Zone 1 and state Senior Legion tournaments, both to be played at Husson University in Bangor in late July.
The five Zone 1 programs are among only 18 Senior Legion teams in three zones statewide this year, compared to 27 teams last summer and a high of 48 in 2007.
“I think it’s just one of those things, like how high school teams run in cycles,” said Paul, who coached the former Old Town-Orono Twins to consecutive state championships in 1992, 1993 and 1994 before the number of teams statewide exploded. “There’s years when they’re in the playoffs every year and winning championship after championship and then there’s time when there’s a lull.
“Let’s face it, There are a lot of things out there for kids to do but I’d like to think that the history and tradition and strength of American Legion baseball will be enough to sustain itself.”
Reasons for the recent decline of Senior League programs range from the steady drop in high school-age student-athletes around the state — given Maine’s status as the state with the oldest average age in the nation — to a trend in southern Maine toward weekend travel team play. That latter left high school coaches in York and Cumberland counties to create a wooden-bat summer baseball league where their teams play each other during summer weeknights.
The travel-team option is nowhere near as feasible in more northern areas of the state, leaving American Legion baseball as the most viable option.
“We live in a region where you have to travel at least two hours into Portland and four or five hours into Boston,” said Morris.
The accidental offshoot of the reduction of teams may be to return Senior Legion baseball to its original premise, Paul said.
“In a lot of places it turned into being used as a program to improve the high school team for next year and just using your own high school kids, but the true meaning of American Legion baseball is that it’s an elite baseball program, an all-star league where you take the best players from all the schools you draw from,” he said.
“If they’re from your school predominantly, then great, but if there are other schools that have good baseball players who want to play, it’s your obligation to have them on your team and playing. You want as strong a Legion team as you can get.”
This summer’s Bangor-Brewer collaboration with the Coffee News Comrades hearkens back to a similar regional team like Paul’s Old Town-Orono teams of the early 1990s. The other four Senior Legion teams in Zone 1 similarly have multiple high school programs within their drawing areas.
“Those rosters look to be pretty full with full 18-player complements, so we’re still in good shape,” Paul said.
Any future increase in the region’s Senior Legion ranks likely will depend on the fortunes of a growing Junior Legion division for players ages 14-16.
Eleven Junior Legion teams are competing this summer from within Zone 1’s imprint on the Senior Legion map.
They include two teams from Hampden, three from the Skowhegan-Oakland region and individual teams from Piscataquis County (Penquis), Washington County (Machias) and Waldo County (Belfast), three areas that once fielded Senior Legion programs.
Paul hopes success in creating opportunities for younger players from in those areas of the zone that don’t have Senior Legion teams will lead to a resurrection of the older-age division for players who age out of the Junior Legion ranks.
“Maybe we watered it down a little too much, maybe we made it into an extension of the high school season,” Paul said of Senior Legion’s numerical heyday a decade ago. “Maybe that was the byproduct of having so many Legion teams so now we’re looking at getting back to six or maybe eight teams max in a zone and again fielding elite, all-star Senior Legion teams.
“Theoretically, most of those (Junior Legion) kids are going to be next year’s high school players,” said Paul, “but the whole premise of a Senior Legion team is to bring the best players from the schools you draw from together and form a very strong, competitive team that has an opportunity to vie for a state championship.”
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