In this 2019 photo, Presque Isle's Andrew Hewitt slides safely into second base as Houlton's Keegan Gentle takes the throw. Houlton is not able to field a baseball team this spring because of a lack of athletes. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Houlton High School has fielded one of the region’s more competitive baseball teams of recent vintage. But with only six players attending tryouts, the Shiretowners won’t have a team this spring.

Instead, some Houlton players will be part of a cooperative team with Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook.

“We’re just low in numbers, and we didn’t have a big turnout of incoming freshmen,” acting Houlton athletic administrator Jon Solomon said. “Losing the season last year really set us back with that.”

Until COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 campaign, the Shiretowners had compiled a 76-25 record over the previous six years. They won the 2018 Class C North championship and reached the regional final two years earlier after an undefeated regular season.

Coach Jim Castner’s club has finished no worse than sixth in the final Heal Points since 2013 and was No. 1 seed in 2018 among four top-three regular-season finishes during that span.

“Jim and I have had some long conversations over the last couple of months because we saw some of this coming and were trying to see what we could do to make this work,” said Solomon, who served as the junior varsity coach and varsity first-base coach under Castner.

“But we had to make a decision that was best for the program, and we didn’t want to risk starting the season and not be able to finish it.”

The Southern Aroostook-Houlton cooperative entry will compete in Class D North.

“We have a great working relationship with Southern Aroostook because we already co-op with them in football and in [ice] hockey,” Solomon said.

The reduced number of baseball players at Houlton mirrors participation trends in some other sports.

Last winter, the Shiretowners had just enough basketball players to fill their boys and girls varsity squads. Of the four seniors on the boys roster, only two had played all four years in the system. “We made some JV games but a lot of those kids were swinging and we didn’t have enough for a full JV roster for both teams,” Solomon said.

Only one sophomore played boys basketball.

“He was one of the only sophomores on the soccer team, the only sophomore playing basketball and he would have been the only sophomore playing baseball,” Solomon said.

Houlton’s recent baseball success hasn’t been limited to the high school level. The town’s Little League all-stars qualified for the state tournament in 2016 after capturing the District 3 title that spans much of northern and eastern Maine, but Solomon said only three players from that group went on to play in high school.

“There was a situation where there was some type of disconnect that happened between middle school and Little League that led us into this situation now with low numbers,” he added.

One possible draw on the baseball talent pool is the introduction beginning in 2017 of a youth lacrosse program in the region, but Northern Maine Lacrosse founder Ken Ervin of Houlton said early signs this spring also point to reduced participation in that program, which is not school-based, among high school-age players.

Fewer than the minimum 10 players required to play a game signed up at the group’s first registration night.

“I do know there’s a systemic challenge that we’re facing up here,” Ervin said. “I don’t know if it’s that way elsewhere, but we just don’t have as many boys and girls from the youth levels right through the high school years playing sports.”

Solomon also isn’t convinced that any inroads made by lacrosse have had a major impact on the number of high school baseball players.

“I don’t think lacrosse is really the reason why we don’t have baseball,” he said. “There’s a lot of factors.”

Several County basketball coaches reported at least a small dip in the number of players on their high school teams last winter due to COVID-19-related issues.

Baseball may have been one of the sports that suffered most from the onset of the pandemic in Maine last spring. The high school season was canceled and opportunities to play baseball outside of school were limited in 2020. The American Legion season was canceled and Little League-affiliated play around the state was reduced to some local leagues, Houlton not among them.

“We had maybe three kids that traveled down to the Bangor area and played on some summer travel teams, that was it,” Solomon said.

He said once high school sports were shut down last spring, some student-athletes turned their attention elsewhere.

“It’s hard to get those kids to come back right now,” he said. “We’re just in a time right now when kids aren’t doing anything. They’re more focused on working and hanging out with each other instead of being out there playing.”

Solomon, who is Houlton’s head football coach, said he’s had conversations with school principal Tim Tweedie and other varsity coaches seeking ways to encourage more students to play sports.

“You’re looking at baseball now but this could be an effect that goes across the board if we don’t start doing something different, I feel,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to, finding ways to get kids to come back out.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...