GORHAM — Anthony Pisani came to the University of Southern Maine five years ago to play baseball for Ed Flaherty. He’ll leave campus playing for his teammates and his coach.
If you think the media and baseball romantics overdo the team chemistry thing, listen to Pisani. When USM plays Western Connecticut State in the first game of the Little East Conference tournament on Wednesday, Pisani can hear the clock ticking off the last hours of his college career.
USM is the conference regular-season champ with a 12-2 record, 33-7 overall. The Huskies have been ranked among the top 25 NCAA Division III teams through much of the season. Each of their opponents during the four-day, double-elimination tournament would like to be the team that takes down the top dog.
The conference tournament winner gets the automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament. Runners-up have to pray for an at-large berth. That fate is in the hands of individuals who can value the number of wins and losses much differently.
Enter Pisani, a fifth-year senior infielder from Cheshire, Conn., south of Hartford. He sat out most of last season with an injury. Two other USM teams he was on ended their seasons in the LEC tournament. Only one made it to the NCAA regional, losing two games and failing to make the national tournament.
USM has won two national baseball titles but the last was in 1997. That’s a long time.
Before Tuesday’s practice, Pisani was mum if the subject was Saturday’s final tournament games or the NCAA regional or the national tournament. “Coach Flaherty and the (assistant coaches) drill it into us. Take one inning at a time, one game at a time. That’s the difference with this team.”
Teammate Logan Carman, a junior pitcher who starts the first game and was sitting next to Pisani before Tuesday’s practice, followed his captain’s lead. Talking about the past was safer.
Talking about Pisani’s freshman season gave context to this one.
“The seniors didn’t talk to the freshmen,” said Pisani, one of about a dozen first-year players in 2009. “They really didn’t give us advice and we felt we couldn’t talk to them.”
The very talented 2009 team had Chris Burleson and Josh Stowell from Deering High, Anthony D’Alfonso from Westbrook and Ryan Pike from Thornton Academy. They may have been oblivious to the pecking order or hierarchy that Pisani says existed.
“If you watch this team, you can’t tell which players are freshmen. Well, I guess if you go into the locker room you could. The freshmen have the worst lockers.”
Sam Dexter, the precocious freshman from Messalonskee High of Oakland, pushed Pisani out of the shortstop position. Pisani moved to second base, where he’s played before. He saw Dexter’s skillset. His ego understood.
Carman understands this: He’s the beneficiary of a lineup that keeps the hits coming. The team is batting .350. “I have to pitch to these guys in practice,” said Carman, who is from Newfields, N.H. Trying to get the ball past them, using one of his four pitches, is his challenge. He leads the staff with a 9-0 record. His earned-run average of 1.97 is second only to freshman Tyler Leavitt (4-0, 1.64), who’s pitched 31 fewer innings.
His teammates, said Carman, have his back. In return he has to give them his best. It’s pretty simple. It gets more complicated when a team loses that chemistry or respect for one another. Exhibit A being the Boston Red Sox in September 2011.
Pisani has played in all but one of USM’s 40 games. He’s batting .377, which is fourth-best on a team that’s hitting .350. He doesn’t have the power of Tucker White and Forrest Chadwick (seven home runs each) or Nick Grady’s 20 extra-base hits, but he gets on base.
Pisani chose USM because Flaherty has coached 28 years and still breathes life into the game of baseball like no other coach he’s met.
That Flaherty can breathe fire is also the point. Pisani has felt his coach’s heat.
“Later he’s by my locker, telling me he loves how I play. I understand.”
Every team needs someone’s beating heart to maintain equilibrium through the winning streaks and the losing skids. Pisani helped do that this year. “We have fun. We like being around each other.”
I mentioned that this week and maybe the weeks that follow will be his last roundup with USM baseball. Would he be any more motivated? Pisani shook his head.
It’s playoff baseball.
If you’re not motivated, you’re not living.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at firstname.lastname@example.org