HARWICH, Mass. — The University of Southern Maine has long been the benchmark for New England’s Division III baseball programs. The Huskies have won two national championships and appeared in five other national tournaments.

And everyone is chasing the Huskies again this year.

USM used some gritty pitching from Tyler Leavitt and Andrew Richards and timely hitting to defeat Endicott College 8-4 Friday night at Whitehouse Field in the NCAA Division III Regional tournament. The win left the Huskies (34-12) as the only unbeaten team in the double-elimination tournament and needing only one win to advance to another national tournament.

USM is scheduled to play the losers’ bracket winner at 4 p.m. Saturday, although the starting time may be pushed back because of a rainy forecast. While the Huskies have a cushion no other team has – they can lose Saturday and still have another chance for the regional title – Coach Ed Flaherty doesn’t want to even consider that possibility.

“That’s the wrong way to think,” he said. “Whichever (team) comes out of these guys, that’s who we’ll play. And we know they’re all going to be after us.”

The Huskies are in this position because they don’t take anyone for granted, and don’t look ahead.

“We just take it one game, one inning, one at-bat, one pitch at a time,” said Richards, who won Thursday’s game with 22/3 innings of relief and saved Friday’s game with four innings of relief. “We’re not thinking ahead.”

And, said Flaherty, they don’t think about the past. “It’s just about playing the next game,” said Flaherty. “I try to get my team thinking about playing the next game; don’t think about what you’ve done or what you are. Just play.”

A year ago, the Huskies lost to Endicott in this game, and then had to come back from the loser’s bracket to beat the Gulls twice for the regional title.

The difference this year, said catcher Matt Verrier, is that “we played all three phases of the game well. And we were focused from beginning to end.”

And they got big efforts from Richards and Verrier.

Verrier, who had three hits, may have had the game’s biggest swing. With one out in the sixth, and USM leading 3-2, he hit the first pitch over the left field fence. “I was looking for something up, middle in,” said Verrier. “When I saw it, I pulled the trigger.”

“That was a big momentum swing,” said Richards. “He’s the leader of this team. Once he gets going, we get going.”

While Verrier disagreed with Richards’ assessment – “We have a bunch of leaders on this team,” he said – Flaherty agreed with his swing’s importance.

“In these games, any time you can stretch it from one run to two, that’s big,” said Flaherty.

And when starter Leavitt gave up a leadoff double to start the sixth, Flaherty called on Richards, who had thrown 32 pitches a night earlier.

“Richards is the key factor we have when the game gets a little bit in question,” said Flaherty. “Once that game got into the sixth, I said we would use Richards, and I put the other relievers down.”

He wasn’t untouchable, giving up six hits and a run in the four innings, but Richards – like Leavitt – made some tough pitches when needed.

“Their pitchers made good pitches,” said Bryan Haley, the coach of Endicott. “Richards did it for them last year. He’s on the cusp of doing it again this year.

“I know Ed has a lot of trust in him.”

And Richards thrives on the work – “I wasn’t coming out of that game,” he said – and in fact, gets better the more he’s used.

“When he gets tired, his ball moves a lot more,” said Verrier.

USM broke the game open with three in the ninth – the injured Forrest Chadwick (quad) and Sam Dexter getting RBI singles – to settle this one, and send the Gulls into Saturday’s loser’s bracket final against either St. Joseph’s College or MIT.

And it allowed the Huskies to go back to their hotel and relax. Some were going to finish watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in Verrier’s room. Richards said he would watch episodes of the “King of Queens” sitcom.

“Nothing to do with baseball,’’ said Verrier, who was a triple shy of the cycle. “But when game time comes, we’re ready.”

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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