The Sanford Mainers will open their 2019 home schedule Friday night with a roster of college baseball talent that includes six players from Maine.

The Mainers, who opened their 18th season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League with a road game on Wednesday, will take on the Valley Blue Sox in their home opener at historic Goodall Park at 6:30 p.m.

Since their inaugural season in 2002, the Mainers have offered college players from across the nation an opportunity to hone their skills and gain exposure to pro scouts in a premier wooden-bat summer league. This season, their roster includes talent from schools as close as the University of Maine and Bates College and as far away as major conference schools such as Vanderbilt, Michigan and Kentucky.

The home opener will be especially sweet for players who grew up in Maine.

“It’s awesome (being back in Maine),” said Trevor LaBonte, a York High grad coming off his freshman season at the University of Maryland, where he posted a 1-6 record with a 5.98 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. “Obviously I was away from home this year at Maryland, so I’m really thankful to be able to live at home this summer and play for Sanford.”

Even for those who stayed closer to home, like Matthew Pushard, a Brewer High grad who pitched out of the bullpen this spring as a freshman at UMaine, Sanford holds a particular appeal.

“It feels good being able to stay home and let my family and friends watch the games,” said Pushard, who was 0-2 with a 6.33 ERA and 16 strikeouts over 21 1/3 innings for the Black Bears. “A lot of our guys have said they’ve had great (experiences) and that this place is awesome. Player development is great here, the coaching staff is excellent, so I’m just trying to get better each and every day on the field.”

For twins Robbie and Reece Armitage, rising juniors at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduates of Falmouth High School, family will be watching from across the diamond as well as from the stands.

“Being close to home is something that we’ve been used to and being able to play with each other is always really nice and something we’ve always been able to,” said Robbie, a third baseman whose .318 average, nine home runs and 50 RBI in 52 games for the Red Foxes placed him among the top hitters in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

“It’s just really special for my family and my friends, too,” said Reece, an outfielder who hit .269 with four home runs and 31 RBI in 51 games in 2019. “It’ll be nice to play in front of them all summer.”

Gavin Bates, a native of Auburn and a graduate of Kents Hill School, will bolster the Mainers’ bullpen. Bates was 0-0 with a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings as a freshman at the University of Dayton.

The Mainers return only three players from their 2018 roster: pitchers Darren Williams (1-1, 3.72 ERA), Kyle Skidmore (0-0, 5.68 ERA) and Cumberland native Ryan Twitchell (2-4, 4.08 ERA). Twitchell has yet to join the team after suffering an injury at the end of his collegiate season at the University of Rhode Island.

The Mainers had a first-round exit from the playoffs last summer following a 24-18 regular season and a second-place finish in the NECBL’s Northern Division.

The team plays a 45-game schedule, traveling across New England from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to Montpelier, Vermont. This year, the Mainers will play 24 games at 950-seat Goodall Park, constructed in 1915 and renovated after a devastating fire in 1997. They lost 13-0 in a rain-shortened season debut at North Adams (Massachusetts) on Wednesday night.

They have a new manager this season, Cejay Suarez, who takes over from Chris Martin, the Mainers’ manager the past three years.

Suarez played baseball at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, graduating in 2017. He served as an assistant coach at Bridgton Academy under Aaron Izaryk, the Mainers’ general manager since 2016 and former manager from 2009-15.

“On the field, we always talk about winning championships,” Suarez said. “That’s our No. 1 goal.”

And Suarez knows that winning games would be a boon not only for his 32-man roster, but for the greater Sanford community. This year’s home opener, coming almost exactly one year after tragedy reached Goodall park when a motorist struck and killed a 67-year-old fan during a game, represents a particularly powerful moment.

“Off the field, (we plan to) get to know the community as well as we can and give back to the community, because they’ve giving us what for some of these guys will be the summer of a lifetime,” said Suarez.

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