May 12, 2013

Steve Solloway: A baseball master and his protege perform like champions

GORHAM - What was Ed Flaherty thinking? What was his next move? In the middle of a one-run ballgame for the Little East Conference championship, the coach in the opposing dugout thought he could guess.

"I should know," said Bob Prince, who played for Flaherty. "I know how his mind works. I've been around it long enough. But he knows I'm thinking I know him."

Saturday's game for the invite to the NCAA Division III tournament was more baseball than chess. More timely hitting and good pitching and playmaking than a master coach and his protege making moves on a diamond.

The University of Southern Maine beat UMass-Dartmouth, 4-2.

The veteran baseball man whose teams have won 833 games over his 28 seasons as coach made it appear his players were doing all the thinking.

"He knows what he taught me," said Prince. "To throw me off he probably thought differently today."

Yes, the Flaherty-Prince matchup was a small subplot and surprise. That USM was playing for the tournament championship was expected. UMass-Dartmouth's appearance in the title game was not.

The Corsairs' success always lagged behind USM and Eastern Connecticut State. After an eight-year apprenticeship as Flaherty's hitting coach, Prince applied for the head coaching job in the summer of 2011. He got it.

No one expected a two-year turnaround. Twenty-three of the 31 players were freshmen and sophomores. UMass-Dartmouth lost its first game of the double-elimination tournament Wednesday before starting to win. By noon Saturday, unbeaten USM and once-beaten UMass-Dartmouth were the last two teams. Prince stuck to his mantra: "Don't let things rattle you. If we get behind by a run or make an error, forget about it."

USM has a fearsome lineup. If you keep Tucker White or Nick Grady from knocking down the outfield fences, you've still got seven other tough outs to get.

Relax, said Prince to his sophomore pitcher, Nick Fuller. If one pitch doesn't get the out, the next one will.

When the coach wasn't telling his players to relax, he needed to talk to himself.

Hey, five week ago, if you said UMass-Dartmouth to 100 people, you'd probably get no sign of recognition from 99. That's changed since the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt for Dzohkhar Tsarnaev.

The younger Tsarnaev was a UMass-Dartmouth student. He returned to campus after the bombing at the marathon finish line. The next night he was in the weight room at the university and seen by some of Prince's players.

"Unbelievable," Prince said after his team won Thursday. "I wish I had known." He shook his head in amazement. An alleged terrorist on campus was one more thing to deal with.

Saturday, he shook hands with Flaherty after the game. He shook hands with USM players. He had coached the juniors and seniors. Prince had told his own players to watch how USM played the game. Understand and let it rub off on them.

Prince was the All-American outfielder on the 1991 USM team that won the state's first national collegiate championship in a major team sport. He was the sure-handed kid from Wells and more than comfortable with a bat in his hands.

His career batting average of .414 is still the team record. Twice more he was selected an All-American.

Saturday, when Prince returned to his dugout, he felt the sting of losing. He didn't try to hide it.

"I'm a competitive guy. I love Eddie but we were here to win this game."

UMass-Dartmouth had led, 2-1. Flaherty was preparing himself for the possibility of losing and playing another game Sunday.

"They had the players to win," said Flaherty. They had the coach to win, too. For the first time, someone close to Flaherty was challenging him in a big game as a fellow coach.

In the ninth inning, as relief pitcher Andrew Richards got the last outs for the victory, Flaherty let himself think about Prince.

"I was wondering how he feels. His kids played so well. I felt for him."

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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