GORHAM — The University of Southern Maine has spent the entire season trying to get past the success of last year, when the Huskies came within two wins of a national championship.
But finishing as a national runner-up also has been an incentive for the returning players.
“It was probably the best experience I’ve ever had playing baseball,’’ said fifth-year senior Chris Bernard, a pitcher and outfielder from Scarborough. “And as a senior you want to go out as good if not better as the previous year.’’
Bernard has been one of the leaders of this year’s team, which will continue its season in the NCAA Division III regionals on Cape Cod. USM (31-12) received the No. 2 seed in the double-elimination tournament and will play No.7 Worcester State (25-15) in its first game at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Whitehouse Field in Harwich, Massachusetts. St. Joseph’s College earned the sixth seed in the tournament and will play No. 3 Tufts at 4:30 p.m.
“We had to build a new identity this year,’’ said Bernard. “I think we did a good job with that. We came together and found our way.’’
Bernard found his way to the Huskies after spending a year at the University of Maine, a Division I program. Actually, he was just pitching for the Black Bears, which was an issue for him. “I wanted to play two-way,’’ he said. “I wasn’t ready to give up hitting.’’
So after a freshman season in which he was 1-1 in six appearances with a 5.19 ERA – but did not hit – Bernard transferred to USM.
“Best decision I made with my career,’’ said Bernard.
With the Huskies, Bernard has found his hitting stride – he has a .341 career batting average with 10 home runs, 47 doubles, 103 RBI and 81 runs in 112 games – but hasn’t pitched as much as he would have liked. Tommy John surgery can do that to you.
Bernard first hurt his right elbow at UMaine, but the injury wasn’t severe enough to require surgery, just rehab. Surgery came later.
In his fourth start for the Huskies – Bernard was 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA at the time – he threw a slider that hit the batter. “I felt a pop and some tingling in my elbow,’’ he said.
He had surgery and said it has been a long process getting back to where he was before the injury. He tried to return in eight months so he could pitch the next year. But he injured an oblique muscle in his first rehab start so he took a medical red-shirt during his junior year. He pitched that summer for the Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide.
“I think two years later it’s starting to feel normal again,’’ said Bernard. “Shoulder, elbow, mechanics-wise.’’
The Huskies have been careful with Bernard’s pitching the last two years, using him mostly as a designated hitter.
“I haven’t pitched as much as I would have expected or wanted to,’’ said Bernard, who was the Gatorade Player of the Year for Maine in 2009 as well as the Mr. Baseball recipient and Maine Sunday Telegram Player of the Year. “But I think it helped me develop as a hitter. If I was the guy who was supposed to be on the mound, I might not have hit as much as I have.’’
Coach Ed Flaherty prefers to keep Bernard at DH, where he can just concentrate on hitting, but may need him in the outfield for the regionals. Center fielder Forrest Chadwick, the No. 3 hitter, was injured in the Little East Conference title game and is day to day according to Flaherty. Chadwick could be the DH.
Bernard, said Flaherty, swings “a dangerous bat.’’ There will be games when Bernard is 0 for 4, but “if you make a mistake, and he hits it right, he can do damage. His presence alone makes other coaches think about the way they pitch our lineup.’’
Bernard said he never felt pressure to produce at USM after his transfer from Division I. And that made the transition much easier.
“I think maybe Chris’ expectations were … same thing happened with Matt Verrier (the senior catcher who also transferred from UMaine after his freshman year), they think they have to be all-world,’’ said Flaherty. “ I think they take a little more upon themselves at first. Then they realize that this level, especially at the upper end, is as good as any Division I program. They’re around a lot of good players.’’
Indeed, USM had six players make the Little East all-conference first team: catcher Verrier of Norway and Oxford Hills, first baseman John Carey of South Portland, second baseman Paul McDonough of Wells, shortstop Sam Dexter of Oakland and Messalonskee, DH Bernard and pitcher Tyler Leavitt of North Andover, Massachusetts.
Leavitt was named the conference pitcher of the year (7-3, 2,62 ERA) and McDonough was named rookie of the year (.328, 46 runs).
“Wherever you are in the lineup, you’ve got eight great hitters around you,’’ said Dexter. “Coach says it all the time, if one guy is not having a great day, another guy will pick you up. That’s just the way this team rolls.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: