WESTBROOK — The focus returned to baseball Friday.

For about 2 1/2 hours, Westbrook High baseball fans paid attention to balls and strikes, over-the-shoulder catches and plays at the plate. Yes, there were those who stopped by the field to see who was in the lineup and who wasn’t following the suspensions of several athletes after their involvement in a drinking party. But for the most part, people cared about what was happening between the lines.

Baseball is important to this city. In addition to the Blue Blazes’ winning last year’s Class A state championship, Westbrook sent a team to the Little League World Series in 2005, appeared in a couple of regional championships with those players, and has won a couple of Junior League championships.

“Our focus has always been on baseball,’’ senior catcher and captain Kyle Heath said of his teammates. But for the last few days, much of the community’s focus has been on what happened Tuesday night. That’s when Westbrook police charged 11 teenagers with underage drinking and other violations at a party allegedly held at the Sargent Street home of one of the players.

School officials responded by saying any student-athlete who was at the party would be suspended. Those include three from the baseball team, two from the girls’ track and field team and one softball player, according to Athletic Director Marc Sawyer.

The suspended baseball players are seniors – shortstop Collin Joyce, right fielder Ryan Gilligan and reserve Tristian Savage. Joyce, regarded as one of the best players in the state, and Gilligan had batted second and third in the lineup.

The Blazes now start three sophomores and a freshman, and their youth showed.

Portland scored an unearned run in the seventh inning for a 2-1 victory. The Blazes had their chances but stranded 10 runners.

“I thought we pulled it together pretty well,’’ said Heath. “We kind of made the best with what we had. We made a few mistakes but that can happen with any lineup.’’

Interest in the suspensions was fueled by what happened last fall. Thirty athletes were suspended after a drinking party. But those suspensions were overturned, leading to an independent investigation of the school’s code of conduct and the handling of the suspensions. The school has held numerous forums on its alcohol policies and enforcement since, but several fans said Tuesday’s party showed the message is still not getting through.

“I’m just very saddened by the choices the kids have made,’’ said Nancy Heath, the mother of Kyle Heath. “I’m saddened for the community. I’m saddened for their teammates. You’d think these children would make better choices.’’

Greg Coppeta, a former University of Southern Maine player who spent four years in the Detroit Tigers’ minor league organization, now lives in Westbrook with children in the eighth and fifth grades. He wasn’t surprised it happened again.

“Kids will be kids,’’ he said. “I just think eventually they’ll learn from their mistakes at some point. But throughout the process it happens.’’

Bill DeCoste, who follows baseball at every level in Westbrook, agrees. “I know the kids got a lot of warnings,’’ he said. “At the same time I wonder if you’re ever going to stop kids from drinking.’’

Still, he understands why the school reacted the way it did. “I guess there’s nothing else they could do,’’ he said. “The dangers of drunk driving can’t be emphasized enough.’’

Coppeta and Mike Heath, Kyle’s father, said much of the solution resides with the parents.

“It’s my job to make sure (my children) understand the consequences, what the rules of the game are,’’ said Coppeta. “I don’t expect the burden should be on the school. I know the school department has rules but my rules override theirs. That’s the way I run my household.’’

Mike Heath, a physical education teacher at Westbrook Middle School, said he heard from parents of his students who are examining how they raise them. “Parents talk to me about how they’re going to do things differently,’’ he said.

Greg Souza, the Westbrook baseball coach, said his team will attend a meeting with former major leaguer Shea Hillenbrand on Saturday at Maine Hits in Scarborough. Hillenbrand began his career with the Red Sox and endured his share of personal problems. Souza said it will be good for his players to hear his message.

He also said it was good for his players to experience a tight game Friday. Westbrook loaded the bases twice in the first three innings but got only one run – on an RBI single by sophomore D.J. Henrikson.

The Blazes committed two errors, the last allowing Dominic Fagone to score the winning run with two outs in the top of the seventh.

“We have a young lineup now,’’ said Souza. “They’re going to make mistakes and learn, and get ready for the end of the year.

“We have great leadership from our senior guys; they know how to win and they know how we play and they’ll make those guys better. Those guys just haven’t seen that situation.’’

Regardless of how young the Blazes have become, said Souza, their goals won’t change.

“Our young guys are good, just inexperienced,’’ he said. “They’ve always won. We expect to win here. We don’t expect to go 12-4. We expect to win a state championship.’’

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

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