ORONO – A few days before his scheduled home opener, University of Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper pulled on his Sidd Finch work boots and tromped out of the clubhouse into the brilliant afternoon sunshine. He looked around, chatted on a cellphone for a bit, then returned to the clubhouse.
It wasn’t exactly Groundhog Day, but with 17 inches of snow covering Mahaney Diamond, the message was similar. Spring would come a little later this year. Maine would be playing not in Orono this weekend but in central Connecticut at the University of Hartford.
The America East baseball conference expanded its season to 10 weeks, with each of the six schools scheduled to play a pair of home-and-home, three-game series against the other five programs.
Last spring, in a condensed eight-week conference schedule, teams played doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.
“By Game 4, everybody wants to quit, including the umpires,” Trimper said. “Kids were getting hurt because coaches were trying to bring back (pitchers) on no days’ rest, just to try and get through the weekend.”
The other tweak was that, in the first half of the conference schedule, if weather makes any site unplayable, the series switches to the opposing school’s campus, and the second-half series is flip-flopped accordingly. So Hartford will now come to Orono the weekend of April 27-28.
As the league’s northern outpost, Maine may be traveling quite a bit early in the season, but the Black Bears have shown they can handle the rigors of the road after a southern swing that included 28 games in 31 days.
“I thought it went extremely well,” said Trimper, now in his eighth season as head coach at Maine. “It does tax your team a little bit, but it’s vital for us to try and get some wins and play some good teams, but also to evaluate our team. It’s difficult to evaluate your team inside.”
The Black Bears started playing in mid-February and dropped their first five games against Auburn and Stetson before winning nine of their next 15. They came north and, before setting foot in Maine, opened their conference slate by taking two of three from Stony Brook in Long Island, N.Y.
“That was a big test for us,” said senior shortstop Michael Fransoso, a native of Portsmouth, N.H. “Coming off a long trip to Florida with nice weather, now you’re jumping into an America East game on the road, against the defending league champions in 30-degree weather.”
Maine won the opener 1-0 behind the complete-game pitching of junior Tommy Lawrence, who sat out last season after transferring from Winthrop University. Sophomore Scott Heath of Westbrook delivered a sacrifice fly to score Colin Gay, who had two of Maine’s four hits.
The Black Bears split Sunday’s doubleheader, losing 7-1 before winning 8-3. Junior Michael Connolly caught the first two games — then pitched seven innings to earn the decision in the rubber game.
“He was recruited as a shortstop,” Trimper said of Connolly, who played middle infield and third base his freshman year. “He’s the most athletic kid I’ve ever coached.”
Connolly is one of six Black Bears with at least 45 at-bats who are hitting above .300. The others are Troy Black (.373), Fransoso (.333), Brian Doran (.333), Sam Balzano (.317) and Gay (.313).
Balzano is a sophomore from Portland who played for Deering High. Besides Heath, the other Mainers on the squad are junior Eric White of Brewer, sophomore Steve Trask of Saco and sophomore Luke Morrill of South Thomaston.
“I never caught until my senior year of high school,” said Connolly, who grew up in Bridgewater, Mass. “The regular catcher went down with a hand injury and I was the only one who could step in. The blocking and the throwing just came naturally.”
Fransoso, a four-year starter at shortstop, said he feels 100 percent healthy for the first time since his freshman year, thanks to a second surgery last summer on his right hip. He hit .327 as a junior with 19 stolen bases, 26 RBI and a team-high 59 runs scored.
“No doubt in my mind he’ll be signing a (professional) contact at the end of the year,” Trimper said. “He’s our No. 3 hitter and the best shortstop in the conference. When Michael goes, the whole team goes.”
Instead of the regular-season champion hosting the conference tournament, the top four teams will gather Memorial Day weekend at Edward A. LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass., home of the Class A rookie-league Spinners. The winner of the double-elimination tourney advances to one of 16 NCAA regionals, whose winners advance to one of eight super regionals for the right to compete in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series.
Last year, Stony Brook stunned heavily-favored Louisiana State in a best-of-three super regional to become the first America East winner to reach Omaha. Under a format more friendly for teams from the Northeast, Maine advanced to the College World Series seven times between 1964 and 1986.
“Now, wherever we go, we hear ‘Man, your conference is pretty good,’ ” Trimper said. “A lot of people think you’re tucked into the Northeast corner and maybe you get lucky every now and then. But our goal is to get to the end, and have a good regional weekend, and before you know it you’re sitting in the super regional if you pitch well.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: