Greely’s Zach Johnston, left, and Ryan Kolben, are part of an impressive class of juniors playing high school baseball this spring. They are among a handful of players who have already verbally committed to NCAA Division I programs. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Given the lost season of 2020, this year’s group of top juniors in high school baseball are not exactly household names. Many haven’t even played in a varsity game.

But trust the college coaches who have pursued them. The junior class in southern Maine has top-tier talent.

Five players have already verbally committed to NCAA Division I programs: Greely left-handed pitcher Zach Johnston to the University of Maryland; Greely catcher Ryan Kolben to UMass; Gorham right-handed pitcher Colin McDonald and Freeport left-handed pitcher Blaine Cockburn to UMaine; and Thornton Academy pitcher/outfielder Cody Bowker to Georgetown.

Johnston and McDonald have yet to play varsity baseball. Kolben barely played as a freshman. And, of course, no one played last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Zach Johnston has not played a varsity game yet. That’s such a weird thing to say, a kid going to a Big Ten program, hasn’t played for his high school yet,” said Ryan Copp, the coach of the Maine Lightning’s elite club team. Copp helped coordinate each of the players’ recruitment.

Kolben and Johnston said they understand people will be curious to see if they are as good as advertised.

“I mean, definitely there will be extra eyes on us. I just think it will be even more fun to compete,” Kolben said.

Johnston said, “I am committed (to Maryland), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to change anything about myself. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing because clearly it’s worked.”

Baseball players who expect to enroll in college for the 2022-23 season can sign an athletic scholarship on Nov. 1. Johnston and Kolben said they will take a gap year, on the request of their future college coaches, and wait until the fall of 2023 to enroll.

Greely High junior Ryan Kolben has verbally committed to the University of Massachusetts, an NCAA Division I program. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I’ll just keep developing, keep working on everything,” said Kolben, who is already a sturdy 6-foot-1, 195-pound presence behind the plate. “It’s just how they recruit. They take one catcher per year. I was lucky enough to be that catcher (for 2023), so that’s how it went.”

For Johnston, a lanky 6-3, 170, the decision to delay college by a year made sense athletically and financially.

“I’m very skinny and I need to get bigger,” he said.

Also, by waiting a year, he was promised a significant bump in scholarship money.

“It is another year of waiting, but what’s great is Zach and Ryan are doing the gap year together. They work out all the time,” said Matt Johnston, Zach’s father. “And the gap year made sense financially for us. Hey, we never thought – he never thought – that he would be going to a Power Five (conference) school.”

Greely junior Zach Johnston intends to take a gap year before enrolling at the University of Maryland, where he plans to play baseball.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Of the group that has made verbal commitments to college programs, Bowker and Cockburn were the only regulars during their freshmen seasons. But in Bowker’s case, he rarely pitched. Now, he’s clocking a fastball in the upper 80s with good control of his off-speed pitches. He is expected to enroll in college in the fall of 2022.

“He’s as much a ringer as anyone in the state and he’ll definitely prove it,” Thornton coach Jason Lariviere said of Bowker. “I’m not sure there’s a better baseball player that I’ve seen this young.”

Scarborough has three juniors who have not made a verbal commitment yet but could join the Division I group. Catcher Nic Frink and shortstop TJ Liponis both started as freshmen on Scarborough’s Class A championship team. Left-handed pitcher Ryan Kelly threw six innings.

Frink, who is also a developing pitcher, is the top Class of 2022 prospect in Maine, according to scouting service Perfect Game. That’s because of the impressive power he’s shown as a two-time participant in the National Power Showcase, a home-run hitting contest for amateur players held at MLB ballparks. Frink hit seven homers (one with a wooden bat) in the 2020 contest at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers.

“It’s legit. He’s as advertised from a power perspective,” said Scarborough Coach Wes Ridlon. “He’s a great defender behind the plate for us. He’s got power and he’s looking to become a more complete hitter.”

Copp said Cheverus catcher Kevin Connolly, a starter as a freshman and the son of Bowdoin baseball coach Mike Connolly, is another Division I caliber catcher.

Dig deeper, and it seems almost every team has a junior or two who plays at a high level and, according to their coach, used the past year to get physically stronger and work on their games.

For example, Marshwood junior right-handers Charlie Winter and Andrew Gray honed their pitches playing for Seacoast United’s showcase team out of New Hampshire.

“They’ve got the stuff to compete at a high level and now we have to see if they can put it into the game,” said Marshwood Coach Eric Wells.

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