They’ve spent the past few baseball seasons on a June collision course. So it seems fitting that in April, the Freeport and Greely baseball teams go in with the same question mark.

Few programs in southern Maine have been more consistently successful than the Falcons and Rangers, who have gone 47-11 and 46-16, respectively, in the last three seasons. But both programs go into this spring with shoes to fill on the mound: Greely lost aces Zach Johnston and Ryan Kolben, while Freeport bid farewell to top hurlers Blaine Cockburn and Nathan Abbott.

This week, while baseball teams across the state are at work for the first pitchers and catchers workouts, the Western Maine Conference rivals are getting started filling those holes.

“I don’t want the guys to feel like it’s an evaluation, because I don’t want them to overdo it. We’re kind of seeing who’s got some control, who’s got some command of their pitches,” Freeport Coach Steve Shukie said. “We kind of know the top guys coming in, but there’s a lot of opportunity for that to move.”

Shukie wasn’t the only one using that word.

“A lot of people see that as holes. Here, we see them as opportunities,” said Greely senior Marky Axelsen, one of the Rangers’ top pitchers last season. “We’re seeing a lot of improvement and we’re really excited to see it show in games.”

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Greely has been a top-two seed in Class B South the last three seasons, and was No. 1 last year, but fell in the playoffs all three times to Freeport, which has reached the last three state finals. The Falcons have their own stories of heartbreak, however, with losses in all three championships.

“It’s been on our minds all year, all summer, all fall, all winter,” Freeport catcher Gus Hollen said. “I think a lot of us are really excited to try to make it back.”

Making it back will mean answering the pitching question. Shukie didn’t seem concerned.

“There’s no panic involved in it,” he said. “Don’t expect anyone to go out and do what Blaine has done the last three years. … We’re in a healthy spot as a program. We’re not going to be relying on one guy to throw 60 innings for us.”

Shukie is confident in the mix he has. Senior Zane Aguiar was one of the Falcons’ top pitchers last year and brings experience in big games, while Arlo Boutureira, Tristan Francis and Aaron Converse have logged varsity innings. Freshman lefty Liam Emmons is a possibility for the Falcons’ rotation.

Those pitchers will have greater responsibilities. They’re ready.

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“For me, I’m not feeling too much pressure. I think it’s more excitement,” Aguiar said. “Every year, I’ve had more expectations put on me, it’s not like it was all dumped on me at once. I’ve kind of worked up to it. We have some great young pitchers, and I’m excited to be that leader and mentor them.”

An experienced catcher helps. Hollen didn’t start behind the plate in games last season, but he spent hours working with pitchers in practice.

“It’s your job to call the game, it’s your job to calm the pitcher down in high-stress situations,” Hollen said. “I think building a relationship with all your pitchers happens in this first week.”

Over at Greely, the Rangers are trying to keep up the winning without Johnston (now at Wake Forest) and Winkin Award winner Kolben (headed for the University of Massachusetts).

“It’s new players, it’s a new team,” Rangers Coach Derek Soule said. “You never try to replace anyone, whether it’s a high-caliber player like Zach Johnston or Ryan Kolben or anyone. … That’s part of the fun and excitement and challenge for our coaching staff.”

Soule said Greely’s pitching puzzle won’t be completed this week. With limited practice time available before the games begin on April 13, however, the evaluation process will at least begin.

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“It’s a small part of the assessment. Certainly, initially we start to think about starters and relievers,” Soule said. “Until we see guys outside on a real mound with real batters facing them … nothing’s settled.”

The Rangers, like the Falcons, have a head start in figuring out the pitching picture. Axelsen, an excellent all-around player, will likely be a top arm as either a starter or reliever. Sam Almy and Ryder Simpson have pitched at the varsity level. Keeler Vogt was the top JV pitcher last season. Tyler Piesik and Cam Irish will factor in as well.

For many, it’s a chance – or opportunity – they’ve been looking for.

“They want a shot, and the confidence grows with time,” Soule said. “A lot of them have been waiting in the wings for a few years, waiting for those guys to graduate. They want the innings.”

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