GORHAM — Forrest Chadwick was playing summer baseball for the Lakeshore Chinooks in Mequon, Wisconsin, a couple of summers ago when some fans asked him where his home was.
“Maine,” said Chadwick, a Gardiner resident who’s a senior outfielder for the University of Southern Maine.
“Maine?” they asked, almost incredulously. “You guys even have baseball there?”
Well, yes, they do. And they play it quite well.
The USM baseball team is making its second consecutive trip to the NCAA Division III national baseball championships this week, and is once again bolstered by a strong core of Mainers. The Huskies will play their first tournament game at 8:45 p.m. Friday, against Wisconsin-Whitewater in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Seven of the nine batters in the Huskies’ lineup are from Maine. Six of the eight starting fielders are Mainers. Half of USM’s 14 pitchers are from Maine.
It’s been that way for Ed Flaherty throughout his 29 seasons as USM’s head coach. The Huskies have won two Division III national championships – in 1991 and 1997 – and are making their eighth trip to the national championships. And the team has always been led by Mainers.
Since 1982, the Huskies have had 25 players selected as All-Americans – 17 of them Mainers. Under Flaherty, USM has had 14 players drafted or signed to professional contracts, eight from Maine.
“When I took this job, my major goal was to get these Maine kids that wouldn’t go up to (the University of Maine in Orono), or if they did go and weren’t playing, wanted to come back here,” said Flaherty. “And now, we’re getting the best players in Maine here. (Shortstop) Sam Dexter, (outfielder/pitcher) Chris Bernard, (catcher) Matt Verrier, they were all the (high school) Player of the Year in Maine. Chadwick, I thought he was the Player of the Year.
“I think Maine is a great place to recruit a national championship team at this level,” Flaherty said.
‘WE ALL CAME BACK’
Flaherty doesn’t get every prospect in Maine – Westbrook’s Scott Heath and Saco’s Jeff Gelinas are playing at UMaine, Scarborough’s Joe Cronin and Marshwood’s Luke Fernandes are at Boston College, and Cheverus’ Louie DiStasio and Scarborough’s Ben Wessel are at the University of Rhode Island – but anyone who goes away still knows what kind of program he has.
Jason Jensen, now the pitching coach at Bowdoin College, an in-state Division III rival, pitched for Flaherty’s 1997 national championship team. But he first went to the University of New Haven, a Division II school at the time, because he wanted to get away from Portland.
After a semester there, Jensen said, “I made some calls to have some people see if Coach Flaherty still wanted me. Luckily, it worked out.”
Jensen was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 18th round of the 1998 draft. He said several players on that USM championship team began their college careers elsewhere.
“We all came back because we knew he had a solid program and we had a good chance to be on a successful team,” said Jensen, who noted that the 1997 championship team had seven Mainers in the starting lineup.
This year’s team has two starters – seniors Bernard and Verrier – who began their careers at Division I UMaine but transferred to USM.
They knew of Flaherty’s reputation and they wanted a chance to play for a national championship. Last year, USM advanced to the Division III championship game, losing to Linfield College of Oregon, 4-1.
“Since I’ve been here, Maine kids have been the core of the team,” said Bernard, a .332 hitter with 46 runs batted in. “I think that’s important, for Maine kids to do well here and for Coach to keep having them come.”
He said he feels great pride playing for the Huskies.
“Just going home, 20 minutes tops, everyone knows how you’re doing, everyone’s asking about the team,” he said. “So you want to do well.”
RECRUITING FROM A SMALL POOL
Second baseman Paul McDonough is a freshman from Wells. He led Wells High to a football championship and was considered one of the top athletes in the state – exactly the type of player Flaherty seeks, one who has competed in multiple sports.
“Coach Flaherty was on top of me from day one,” said McDonough. “I figured this would be a good spot for me.”
McDonough and Bernard think Maine baseball players get a bad rap. Sure, the season’s shorter and the weather can be brutal. But, said McDonough, “If you have the talent, they’ll find you.”
And that’s what Flaherty does.
He acknowledges that Maine probably produces fewer prospects than other states. “When you look at the numbers, you’d better get the ones you want,” he said, “because there’s just not as many good players out there (as in other states). There’s not as many players, period.
“I go after the best guys,” he said. “Lately, I’ve been able to get them.”
Flaherty said he believes that Chadwick will be drafted this June by a major league club. Chadwick, hampered by a quad injury that limited him to designated hitter duties in the New England Regional playoffs, hit .339 with a team-high 50 RBI.
He said it means everything to him to pull on the USM jersey.
“Maine doesn’t get a whole lot of representation in college sports, and I think it should,” he said. “Any time you can represent the state, you take a lot of pride in it.”
Chadwick didn’t have many college choices. St. Joseph’s College wanted him. UMaine talked to him about pitching. “I wanted to play in the field and hit,” he said. “Coach said I had a good chance of coming in and contributing. Any time you hear that as a kid, that’s what you want to hear. So I came here.”
CARRYING ON THE USM TRADITION
John Carey, the senior first baseman from South Portland, said USM baseball was all he heard about when he was growing up.
“They were going to another World Series like every year,” he said. “I remember coming to the camps and the clinics in the winter and seeing the players. It’s kind of cool to try to carry on the USM tradition.”
Flaherty often talks about the All-Americans, the championship teams. “We like to hear about that,” said Verrier, the senior catcher from Norway and Oxford Hills. “You hear nothing but great things about USM baseball.”
Carey remembers that when he heard Verrier and Bernard were considering transferring from UMaine, “I was begging them to come here, get back together with everyone.”
Everyone. Many of these Huskies played against – or with – one another in high school or on off-season travel teams. “And when I came here, I knew all the guys, so they accepted me right away,” said Verrier, a .323 hitter with 40 RBI. “I fit right in.”
Flaherty believes his program has a lot to offer: a chance to compete for a regional or national championship every year; a chance to play professionally; a chance to improve as a player under a veteran coaching staff.
He knows he’s not going to get the best player in Maine every year, but he’s going to keep trying.
“The only kids I couldn’t recruit were my own; their goals were a little higher,” he said of his sons Ryan, now with the Baltimore Orioles, and Regan, a senior at Western Kentucky who’s hitting .315. “But we’ve been doing this for 29 years. I think we have a pretty good track record.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: