Cam Seymour, a standout for the University of Southern Maine this spring, is playing with the Sanford Mainers alongside and against other top college talent. Jessica Ciminelli photo

SANFORD — A year after being shut out of opportunities to play baseball, some of Maine’s best collegiate players are staying close to home to compete in one of the nation’s top wood bat summer leagues.

The Sanford Mainers have kicked off their 19th season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League after the pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 schedule.

The time away has left players more eager than ever to step on the diamond, said Manager Nic Lops.

“Guys are just full of energy, ready to show up,” said Lops, a standout at Cheverus High and St. Joseph’s College who served as the Mainers’ hitting coach in 2019. “They want to play. They’ve missed this opportunity.

For players like Cam Seymour, a spot on the Mainers’ roster offers the chance to test himself against top competition. Over 150 NECBL alumni have reached the major leagues, according to the league’s website, including current Tampa Bay Rays infielder Joey Wendle and Miami Marlins outfielder Adam Duvall, who played for the Mainers.

Seymour, a former Thornton Academy standout, dominated during his first season with the University of Southern Maine. He led the Little East Conference with 14 home runs and 59 RBI, earning conference Rookie of the Year and NCAA Division III All-American honors.

But the 14-team NECBL, which features players from top Division I programs such as Vanderbilt, Louisville and Florida State, brings challenges Seymour rarely finds at the Division III level.

“For me, it’s a pretty big step up,” said Seymour, who went hitless with six strikeouts during his first three starts for the Mainers. “This league is a lot more velocity, a lot more pure stuff.”

Seymour, a catcher and designated hitter, hopes competing against elite pitchers will sharpen his skills.

Kennebunk’s Derek Smith remembers attending Sanford Mainers games as a kid. The Bryant University sophomore now is an outfielder with the team. Jessica Ciminelli photo

Derek Smith, a sophomore outfielder at Bryant University, agreed the summer would offer an opportunity to improve. But the former Kennebunk High star said he also wants to help Maine’s lone NECBL team win games this summer.

“Being a local guy, I do want to win,” Smith said. “You know, for your hometown.”

Smith, who called the atmosphere during the team’s opening night loss to the Winnipesaukee Muskrats “electric,” has deep roots as a Mainers supporter.

“I grew up playing Little League right across the street, and I came here as a little kid, and I watched these games,” said Smith, who was batting .214 through the team’s first four games. “But now, being in that game and seeing those little kids who were me – it was a really awesome experience.”

Trevor LaBonte, a York native who has been pitching for the University of Maryland, said the enthusiasm of the Sanford supporters helped draw him back to the team for a second summer.

“The fans are probably the most passionate fans there are in the whole league,” said the 6-foot-6 right-hander, who is set to graduate early in August. “You’ll get a standing ovation in the second inning if you get out of a jam in a big spot.”

Besides cheering from the stands, Sanford residents keep the team afloat by volunteering their homes each season to players from outside the state, according to Lops.

“We thank our host families tremendously for opening their doors for the summer, feeding our guys, housing them,” said Lops, who remembers going to Mainers games and camps as a kid. “People want to support the Mainers. They love this town. They love this program.”

Though the team struggled to a 1-3 start entering Friday night’s game, Lops and his players agreed it has been thrilling to play in front of fans after the pandemic canceled last year’s college season and limited live crowds this spring.

“Coming here and seeing almost a full stadium on opening night was pretty cool,” Seymour said. “Just seeing this many people in one setting for baseball games.”

That setting, Goodall Park, offers up to 1,000 fans intimate access to players who may someday reach the highest ranks of professional baseball. The stadium, which was built in 1915, has hosted players from Babe Ruth to Dustin Pedroia, according to the team’s website.

With no mask mandate or crowd restrictions, Sanford fans have once again returned to their natural place in the stands to eat strawberry shortcake, watch local kids compete in dizzy bat races between innings, and cheer on the home team.

“The whole atmosphere is tremendous,” Lops said. “We’re spoiled here.”

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