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Former University of Maine pitcher Justin Courtney is doing everything he can to get an opportunity to pitch in the professional ranks.
The Bangor High School three-sport star recently entered an online contest to compete for a chance to try out for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
“My girlfriend, Mikayla Rogers, is from St. Paul and her mother, Teresa, called and said the St. Paul Saints were having a big promotion for a virtual tryout. So I sent them a video to tell them about myself,” Courtney said.
Courtney was one of two finalists in the contest, but former University of Portland pitcher Connor White late Monday night was announced as the fans’ choice in voting via Twitter and Instagram.
Courtney said even though he lost to White, it was a positive experience. He said the Saints called afterward to get his email address and phone number.
“That is a promising sign,” said Courtney. “Even though I didn’t win, the sheer exposure I got over three or four days on social media was good. You never know who’s watching.”
Courtney also went to Port Chester, New York, in January to try out for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox at a minor-league free agent showcase.
“They told me it would be good to play independent baseball and get some innings under my belt,” he said.
He had planned to attend a Frontier League tryout in Ohio at the end of April but the 14-team league canceled it because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every Frontier League team has to have 10 rookies on the roster so that looked the most promising for a guy like me,” said Courtney.
Courtney had an impressive career at UMaine before undergoing Tommy John surgery after developing arm trouble early in the 2018 season.
He struggled when he returned in 2019, posting an 0-2 record and a 6.86 earned run average in just 21 innings of work.
“I struggled to find the feel of my breaking ball,” Courtney said, noting that you can’t be effective at the Division I level without one.
But Courtney said thanks to Relentless Strength Training owner and head strength coach Isaac Wilkins and UMaine head physical therapist Derek Loupin, his arm finally feels good and he intends to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball.
“I feel good. I’m ready to go. I’m just waiting for an opportunity. This virus has made this even more complicated,” Courtney said. “It’s tough to be patient. But I’m going to keep the right mindset. I can only do what I can control.”
Courtney has been working out on his own and throwing whenever he can with former UMaine teammates like pitcher Cody Laweryson, who is in the Minnesota Twins organization.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I still had something to give,” Courtney said. “I’m not ready to give it up. I still feel like I’m getting better. I want to give it one more shot.”
Courtney, who pitched Bangor High and the Bangor American Legion team to state championships in 2014, had a strong freshman season at UMaine in 2015. He was 5-6 with a 3.24 ERA and earned berths on the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America team and on the All-America East second team and All-Rookie squad. He surrendered only three home runs in 72 1/3 innings.
He went 2-3 with a 4.30 ERA in 2016 and then 4-5 with a 3.92 ERA in 2017 while leading the team in innings (87 1/3) and strikeouts (67). His 3.92 ERA led Black Bear starters.
Courtney was off to a good start in 2018 (1-1 record, 2.57 ERA in four starts) before suffering his elbow injury.
The 6-4 1/2, 225-pound right-hander, who features a 92-93 mph fastball along with a slider, change-up and occasional curve, said he has worked on getting stronger to try to improve his velocity.
“To a lot of scouts, if you can’t throw 95-plus, they aren’t interested,” Courtney said.
The 23-year-old Courtney, who earned a degree in business management and a master’s degree in business administration, has been giving pitching lessons to youngsters over the past year and would like to get into coaching someday.
“It has been fun coaching the kids,” he said.
Courtney’s years at UMaine will always be special, especially for someone who grew up just a handful of I-95 exits from the campus.
“All the coaches at Maine do such a good job developing players, not just on the field but off the field as well,” he said. “You become a complete person. They stress discipline and accountability.
“It was the perfect place for me, not only athletically but academically, socially and spiritually,” he added. “It was awesome wearing my home state on my chest.”
Getting the chance to pitch against the likes of Clemson, Florida, Alabama, Texas Tech and Miami were among his other highlights.
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