Conner Wagstaff’s baseball career nearly ended in eighth grade when he suffered a season-ending concussion from being hit in the head by a line drive during practice.
A year later he was back on the diamond as a freshman at Ellsworth High School.
“I was told by my neurologist that I had to choose one sport to really put all my time into and for me that was a no-brainer, it was baseball,” he said.
“He told me to focus on one sport because the risk of getting injured in multiple sports is a lot higher, so cutting down that risk to one sport and baseball having the least contact of all the sports I played, it definitely pushed me that way if I wasn’t already all in for baseball, which I was.”
The intensity of Wagstaff’s comeback wasn’t lost on his pitching partner since their Little League days, Matt Burnett. Together, the two right-handers have developed into one of the top pitching duos in the region — if not the state — as they prepare for their senior seasons with the Eagles.
“Conner does not stop playing the game, he grinds every single day,” said Burnett, who went 7-0 last spring with a 1.46 earned run average and 60 strikeouts against just 11 walks. He also batted .426 as a designated hitter en route to being named Penobscot Valley Conference pitcher and player of the year.
“I won’t lie, I was a little jealous of him taking right off when we were first in high school, and that’s because he had fuel because he had missed a year. He ended up being my inspiration,” he said.
Wagstaff also went undefeated during the regular season in 2018, going 6-0 with a 2.24 ERA to help coach Dan Curtis’ club finish atop the Class B North Heal points with a 15-1 record. Ellsworth advanced to the regional title game via two straight shutout victories before dropping a 4-2 decision to No. 2 Brewer, the eventual state champion.
That loss is providing motivation for this year’s team which, despite graduating nine seniors, looms as one of the top contenders again this spring. The Eagles seek the program’s first regional crown since 1992 and its first state title since 1988.
“They got that taste last year and are pretty hungry to get another crack at it,” said Curtis, whose team is scheduled to start its season April 18 at George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill. “I keep reminding them they’ve got to win the first game before you can worry about all the rest of them.”
The quality of mound work Burnett and Wagstaff bring to their team not only is reflected in the statistics but in their pitching futures.
Wagstaff will attend Division II Southern New Hampshire University — at 20-6 the seventh-ranked team in NCAA Division II this spring — on scholarship next year. Burnett will pitch at the University of Southern Maine (13-3), the third-ranked team in NCAA Division III.
Wagstaff has been a factor in the Ellsworth pitching rotation since returning after suffering his concussion in 2015, while the 6-foot-4 Burnett developed into a stopper more recently.
“Conner came right into high school and really was thrown to the wolves in some respects as a freshman, and Matt was a late bloomer, honestly,” Curtis said. “He wasn’t a kid a lot of people were talking about as a 13- or 14-year-old, but then he grew into his body and worked really hard and turned himself into quite a baseball player.”
Both Wagstaff and Burnett are hard throwers, their fastballs having been clocked consistently in the mid-to-upper 80s, according to Curtis.
Yet their most recent success is as much about variety as velocity, aided by the support of Ellsworth pitching coach Mike Clough.
Burnett’s development of a split-finger pitch helped lead to his emergence last spring. And both he and Wagstaff worked to improve their changeups during the most recent offseason, when Wagstaff pitched for the Maine Lightning 17U showcase team, while Burnett played for the Sluggers 18U team and Acadians American Legion program.
“I hate to admit it, but his changeup is definitely a lot filthier than mine,” Wagstaff said.
The two aces also are working on a phase of the game that may come in handiest if Ellsworth is able to make another deep postseason run.
“Conner and I both are definitely working on our mental game,” Burnett said. “Our big focus this year is just not letting anything get to us. We’re just trying to control the things we can control.”
Ellsworth must replace nine graduated seniors in its effort to return to the championship-game level this spring, but senior Tyler Mitchell, senior Devin Grindle and junior Jackson Curtis all return as starters in the infield, and seniors Riley Grindle and Hunter Fernald provide additional experience.
Coach Curtis also believes several promising younger players will benefit from the examples set by Wagstaff and Burnett.
“They work so hard that I want my freshmen and sophomores to work out with them and see that this is how hard you have to work to be successful in this sport,” he said.
“Hopefully it becomes contagious.”