By Steve Solloway
Hours before they exchanged lineup cards at home plate, the men who coach baseball at the University of Southern Maine and at Saint Joseph's College said their game Tuesday would be treated like any other on their schedules.
In the next breath each admitted that wasn't entirely true. Ed Flaherty, the 28-year head coach at USM, monitored how many pitches sophomore Andrew Richards (South Portland) threw over the weekend in relief during the doubleheader sweep of Little East Conference rival Eastern Connecticut.
"I'm going to start a freshman," said Flaherty on Monday morning. "But my ace in the hole in Richards."
Flaherty checked Saint Joseph's box scores over the weekend watching for Chad Rafferty's (Keene, N.H.) name to appear in the pitching line.
"He (Saint Joseph's Coach Will Sanborn) didn't use Rafferty. I'll bet he's saving him for us. I would."
Rafferty is one of the better Division III pitchers in New England. He did start Tuesday's game, giving up 11 runs on nine hits over five innings of work. USM won, 16-2.
The USM-Saint Joseph's baseball rivalry may not draw the capacity crowds that watch Bowdoin-Colby hockey battles, but more than victory or defeat is on the line. "It's bragging rights, I suppose," said Flaherty. "Recruiting, too. Will and I look at the same kids."
Both rosters have many Mainers. Many play with or against each other in summertime leagues.
It's good baseball, too, played by teams from campuses about 10 miles apart and from two different conferences. USM, with NCAA Division III championships in 1991 and 1997, plays the big brother role but little brother isn't so little any more.
Sanborn, in his 20th season, has led his program to the NCAA regional tournament seven times in the last eight years. The Monks haven't yet advanced to the national tournament.
"Will is a workaholic and so is his team," said Flaherty. "You can go up four, six or eight runs and they're like the little kid yanking on your pants leg. They don't go away. They're not knocking on the door (to respectability). They're in the room."
Saint Joseph's was ranked 11th nationally a month ago but has slid out of the top 25 rankings. Tuesday's loss to USM was the fourth straight. Wednesday, the Monks did sweep Great Northeast Athletic Conference foe Norwich, 8-2 and 5-2 for a 16-9 overall record.
"We've been up and down when you're always trying be consistent," said Sanborn. "I know it's baseball and some days you'll have bad games but you can't put it all on the baseball gods. You have to try to find the answers."
USM moved into the top 25 in the NCBWA/D3Baseball.com national poll before Tuesday's win. Following Wednesday's win over Colby, the Huskies are 17-3 overall with an eye-popping team batting average of .356. Senior Nick Grady (Whitefield, Erskine Academy), who had four hits against Saint Joseph's, is hitting .494. Freshman Sam Dexter (Oakland, Messalonskee) is batting .345.
"I think it's the best freshmen group (11 players) I've ever had," said Flaherty. "I'm loyal to my upperclassmen but if a freshman can help us, I'm going to play him. Youth always energizes."
Monday, Flaherty wondered if his players were "a little too jacked up" for the game with Saint Joseph's. His concern was misplaced.
Mike Connolly was named this season's recipient of the Al Card Award, presented each year to a Maine college baseball coach who has "shown professionalism, enthusiasm and dedication on and off the baseball diamond." The award is given by the Collegiate Baseball Umpires Association of Maine in honor of a charter member. Card, of Augusta, retired some years ago and was known for his personality of being friendly, but firm. ... Senior Carolyn Gorajek (Hightstown, N.J.) scored four points in a 7-2 victory over Endicott to break the school's career lacrosse points record of 203.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: