University of Southern Maine baseball coach Ed Flaherty talks with his players during practice on Wednesday in Gorham. The Huskies begin their season on Saturday with a doubleheader at Husson College. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The University of Southern Maine played one baseball game in 2020 before the NCAA shut down all sports because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Huskies lost 5-1 at Trinity College. “The only losing season since I’ve been here,” USM Coach Ed Flaherty said with a laugh.

And that’s been a long time. Flaherty’s 36th season as the Huskies’ baseball coach will begin Saturday with a doubleheader at Husson University, starting at noon.

“That,” said Flaherty, “will be a great day for us.”

He estimated the Huskies have had 110 practices, and one game, since the fall of 2019. “Imagine that,” said Flaherty. “We need a game.”

Will Sanborn, the head coach at St. Joseph’s College, is entering his 29th season and also coming off a rare losing record. The Monks were 4-7, winners of their final two games, when the 2020 season ended.

He knows exactly how Flaherty feels. The Monks have already played six games, going 2-4, and have a doubleheader at Eastern Connecticut State scheduled for Saturday.

“It means everything to be playing,” said Sanborn. “In our first game of the season, we started eight players who were either seniors or postgrads. These are guys who have been waiting for this opportunity for four years. As an athlete, you gear everything to your senior year. And some of these guys are going to play bigger roles now. But just to be able to play, and to be on a team, is really special.”

USM and St. Joe’s are the state’s top NCAA Division III baseball programs. The Huskies have won two national championships and have appeared in the Division III College World Series six other times. The Monks have made eight NCAA Division III tournament appearances since 2005, winning more than 30 games a season 11 times in that span.

Now, after having the 2020 season wiped out, both programs are ready to get back on track.

USM pitcher Josh Joy throws during practice Wednesday. Joy is one of several players on the roster who are taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

USM, in particular, looks primed for a big year. The Huskies were ranked sixth in the nation when the 2020 season was canceled. All the seniors from last year’s team decided to return, with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to athletes whose season was impacted by the pandemic. They include standout pitchers Ben Lambert of Saco and Thornton Academy (a 2019 Division III all-America selection), Gage Feeney (Cutler/Washington Academy) and Josh Joy (Smithfield/Messalonskee).

“That’s got to be as good a (top) three as anyone in Division III has got,” said Flaherty.

USM also returns pitchers James Sinclair (Portland/Deering), Colton Lawrence (Farmington/Mt. Blue) and Gavin Arsenault (Dixfield/Dirigo). Add hitters Dylan Hapworth (Winslow), Andrew Olszak (Danvers, Massachusetts), Andrew Hillier (Bangor), Sam Troiano (South Portland), Arlo Pike (Buxton/Bonny Eagle)and Jason Komulainen (Gorham), and you’ve got a stacked lineup.

“Every senior last year came back, which is a tribute to them,” said Flaherty, whose team is ranked 11th this week in the D3baseball.com Top 25 poll. “Those kids think so much of the program that they wanted to play another year.”

Flaherty said the biggest adjustment may just be playing baseball again.

“Baseball is a sport that needs to be played a lot,” said Flaherty. “In the first part of the fall, things went good, but the hitting was nonexistent. But the last two weeks, I could see them starting to get it. It was just late coming. Typically, it’s about four weeks with the pitching ahead of the hitters. This year, it went six weeks.”

But, he added, “The workouts we have had in the fall through now are as good as we have had in 26 years. These kids come with a smile on their face every day.”

St. Joe’s is a deep team as well, also bolstered by a large group of returning seniors from a year ago. Matt Bergeron (Salem, New Hampshire), Johnny Flynn (Holden, Massachusetts) and Hunter Richardson (Monmouth) will lead the pitching staff. Ben Gravel (Rochester, New Hampshire) is off to a hot start at the plate, batting .400.

“He’s a good example of why this is important,” Sanborn said of Gravel. “He had pretty good years as a freshman and sophomore, then had a serious injury his junior year. He tried to play through it, and last year was bouncing back from that when the season got bounced because of COVID. Now he’s here, he finished up what he needed for his teaching requirements in the fall, and he opted to stay.”

Sanborn is just happy they’re playing again.

“The analogy I use is that, having athletes without contests is kind of like trying to teach chemistry without a lab,” said Sanborn. “The contests are really important, that’s where a lot of the learning takes place, both sports-specific and in general, life-specific.”

Will Sanborn doubles as the athletic director and baseball coach at St. Joseph’s College, where his office is adorned with photographs of former St. Joe’s baseball players. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Both teams have scheduled more than 30 games this spring, most against conference foes: USM in the Little East and St. Joe’s in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference.

But both Flaherty and Sanborn know the schedules can change quickly because of COVID-19 protocols.

“We all realize it’s all subject to us doing well and that there probably will be some starts and stops along the way,” said Sanborn, who is also the athletic director at St. Joe’s. “We’ve got to anticipate it. So we’re taking kind of a little bit of a slow approach. We’ll take what we can get, as long as we can do it safely and within the guidelines.”

Flaherty just hopes the season can continue.

“I don’t care what happens, as long as we’re playing,” he said. “If we win, we win. If we lose, well, I won’t be happy, but it beats not playing.”


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