LAURENS, NEW YORK — A nearly 1,000-mile road trip that spanned two countries, five states and almost two weeks away from home ended in a pair of championships for a local travel baseball team.

The Southern Maine River Rats, a group of select 15 and 16-year-old players from the Greater Portland area, won the Rockies Elite School’s Out Summer Invitational in Montreal on June 23 and then returned to the States for a title in the 15U Cooperstown Backyard Baseball Classic in Laurens, New York, a week later.

“The trip could not have been scripted any better,” said River Rats Manager Greg Post. “There was certainly a lot of excitement and anticipation as we left town, but to go in and win both championships was beyond anyone’s expectations.”

The River Rats, who hold a 17-4-2 overall record and sit near the top of the New England Elite Baseball League’s 15U Division I American League standings, went 9-0-2 on the 11-night journey that covered 969 miles. Thirteen families, almost 50 people, made the trip that had been in the planning stages since last November.

Kalvin Camire (Biddeford), Will Harriman (Biddeford), Mike McLeer (Saco), Bronson Damon (Westbrook), Jack Houle (South Portland), Jacob Kulig (South Portland), Nathan Morse (Steep Falls), Finn O’Connell (South Portland), Garren Post (Westbrook), Payton Smith (Falmouth), Ryan Thurber (South Portland), John Bickford (Hollis Center) and Joe Townsend (Scarborough) made up the 13-man roster that outscored its opponents 27-2 in four “Championship Sunday” games. Chris Kulig (South Portland) and Bob McLeer (Hollis) serve as the team’s coaches.
After winning the title in Montreal, the River Rats defeated the West Jersey Vikings (of Belvidere, New Jersey) 5-0 in the Cooperstown Backyard Baseball Classic title game, following a 5-0 win over the East Coast Mavericks (Yorktown Heights, New York) in the semifinals.

The Southern Maine River Rats celebrate a tournament championship. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Damon)

“This was probably my best accomplishment (as a River Rat),” said Mike McLeer, a sophomore at Thornton Academy who has played with the River Rats for six years. “Winning is better than anything else … It also gives you a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season.”

The New England Elite Baseball League’s 15U Division I playoffs start July 20, and, if the River Rats are going to win a league championship, they’ll need more of the same pitching and defense that was displayed on the recent road trip.

In 35 innings, the River Rats allowed just 10 runs and committed only two errors. Three pitchers threw shutouts, including Harriman, who leaned on his curveball to strike out seven batters in a semifinal win.

“My mindset was just to pound the zone,” said Harriman, who is a junior at Biddeford High. “Another part of my mindset was, ‘next play.’ If something doesn’t go my way, then you just have to move on from it.”

Since this is the team’s first season playing at the Division I level, the River Rats entered the year hoping to win half of their games, said Greg Post. The bulk of the roster has been together for about five seasons, but there was still an adjustment period early on.

“Once we found our groove, it took off from there,” Greg Post said. The chemistry on this team, and the fact that all 13 players buy into their role, really sets the tone for success.”

Mike McLeer of Saco poses with the championship trophy after the Southern Maine River Rats won a travel baseball tournament in Montreal. McLeer had six RBIs during the River Rats two-country, five state road trip. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Damon)

Because these experiences are about more than just baseball, Greg Post likes to incorporate an educational element. He gave each player a paperback copy of the Jonah Keri book “Up, Up, & Away – The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos,” a 390-page historical look at the former Major League Baseball team. The Expos franchise moved to Washington, D.C., prior to the 2005 season.

“Since these kids were born in 2003 and 2004, most weren’t even aware that Montreal used to have a pro team. That’s crazy to me,” Greg Post said. “It served as a good baseball-themed history lesson.”

The experiential trip that started in Maine and touched New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts also included a tour of Montreal’s Olympic Park, a team dinner on Burlington, Vermont’s famous Church Street, a college informational session at D-II Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, a team outing at Six Flags Great Escape & Splashwater Kingdom in Lake George, New York, and a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Despite all of the trip’s grand sights and unforgettable memories, the part that many involved cherished the most was that those moments happened with a special group of people.

“The kids, coaches and parents are amazing. The chemistry between all of us is like nothing else,” said Camire, who is a sophomore at Biddeford. “My favorite part, besides winning both tournaments, was just spending time with the team and hanging out with my teammates.”

Camire’s manager echoed his sentiments.

“Our team – players, coaches, parents, siblings, and, on this trip, even grandparents – is like family. The lifelong brotherhood and the bond that is formed between the players is the ultimate win for me,” Greg Post said. “Without the continued support of our parents, none of these experiences would ever come to fruition. Our parents are extraordinary in every way and I hope that some day the boys will truly understand the magnitude of the sacrifices they made for them.”



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