APPLETON, Wis. — It’s never easy to see a season end.
Andrew Richards, the stellar relief pitcher for the University of Southern Maine, still wore his disappointment hours after the Huskies were knocked out of the NCAA Division III national championships Monday.
USM finished fourth in the tournament.
But, said Richards, being so close again — USM lost in the national championship game in 2013 — gives the Huskies reason to look forward to next year.
“We were a day away from playing the last day (of the season),” he emphasized.
Yes, the Huskies lose seven valuable seniors from a team that finished 37-15, including a big chunk of the batting order: center fielder Forrest Chadwick, catcher Matt Verrier, outfielder/designated hitter Chris Bernard, first baseman John Carey and third baseman Troy Thibodeau. Also gone are pitchers Logan Carman and Nathan Veilleux.
But they return most of the starting rotation, including sophomores Tyler Leavitt, the Little East Conference pitcher of the year, and Shyler Scates. Those two were 14-7 combined, and gained valuable experience pitching in the championship tournament the last two years.
“We’ve got a good staff coming back,” said junior pitcher Alex Tobey, who went 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA. “And Coach (Ed Flaherty) says he’s got a couple more guys coming in that are pretty good, so we shouldn’t lose anything there.
“Coach usually does a good job of finding guys and filling in spots and keeping the program where it needs to be.”
That’s the thing about the USM program, which made its eighth trip to the NCAA championships this year.
The Huskies have been so consistent in Flaherty’s 29-year tenure that people expect them to compete for the league, regional or national championship every year.
Flaherty thinks the Huskies will be all right in 2015.
“Truth is,” said Flaherty, “I started thinking about it in the eighth inning (of Monday’s 15-3 loss to Emory University). Hate saying that but that’s when I started thinking about where we’re at.”
Flaherty sees a strong returning pitching staff, which will include Zack Bean, a freshman from Westbrook who Flaherty believes has great potential, Leavitt, Scates, Richards, Tobey, Ryan Browner and Dan Kinnon. Leavitt and Scates have potential to be aces, he said, and Richards “is as valuable as anyone we have.”
And while Carman was undeniably the team’s No. 1 pitcher, he missed much of the season while recovering from an injury, allowing all the young pitchers on the staff to gain experience.
“When you have your pitching back,” Flaherty said, “you certainly think you’re going to be in the hunt.”
Flaherty also likes his returning fielders — shortstop Sam Dexter, second baseman Paul McDonough, outfielders Jake Glauser and Nick DiBiase — and young hitters Jake Welch and Matt Bender.
A lot will depend, of course, on the further development of those players, as well as the contributions from any incoming freshmen.
But based on what he’s got coming back, Flaherty is confident his team will contend next year.
“I think it can,” he said. “I wouldn’t put a definite on it right now but when you have your pitching back, you certainly think you’re going to be in the hunt.”
Hitting could be the key. “If we can hit, I think we’ll be in contention to come back next year,” said Bender, who hit .267 this season.
The Huskies also have to replace the leadership of the departing seniors.
McDonough, who hit .335 with a team-high 215 at-bats, said someone is going to have to step up and provide it.
“I learned a lot from the older guys,” he said. “A lot of seniors taught me how to practice every day, how to get better. You have to motivate yourself at this level much more. The coaches motivate you but you’ve got to spend more hours, other than just at practice, working on your game to get better.”
Richards, the strong-armed reliever who always comes in with the game on the line, knows what the departing seniors mean to him. After transferring from Southern Maine Community College, they gave him the confidence to succeed in tight situations.
“It was great to play with those guys and that’s the most upsetting thing (about Monday’s loss),” said Richards, a junior from South Portland who was 7-1 with seven saves. “Looking back, it’s just a game, we lost. But being around those guys every day, that’s something you’ll miss.”
The Huskies may have a different look next year, lacking the power numbers the seniors possessed. They combined for 23 of the team’s 32 home runs and knocked in 202 of its 336 RBI. Flaherty talked about working more on moving the runners over, bunting — things he didn’t do, or have to do, with this team.
Tobey, from South Berwick, isn’t concerned. Just look at this year, he said.
“Just like we came (to the national championships) last year and lost Tucker (White) and (Nick) Grady and everyone was wondering how we were going to come back,” he said. “Obviously we found a way to come back.”
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: MikeLowePPH