Late start to the season troublesome for County baseball, softball teams

Baseball and softball teams in the region are off to a particularly late start, and athletic directors and coaches are frantically trying to piece together their schedules so that all the games will be played by the mandated cutoff date of May 30 established by the Maine Principals’ Association .

While Lee Academy, located in northern Penobscot County, already has played six baseball and softball games, the three schools with baseball and softball teams out of the St. John Valley — Fort Kent, Madawaska and Wisdom — entered Tuesday having not played a single contest. The Ashland baseball and Washburn softball teams were in the same position.

The reason for the delay is the weather. Excessive snow, flooding and continued rainy weather has led to numerous fields being unsuitable to hold practices and games. In past years, teams were usually able to host games during the last week of April following the school vacation. This year, some County ball diamonds are still not close to being playable.

“We are really struggling up here,” said Eric Werntgen, athletic director at Community High School in Fort Kent, whose teams were finally scheduled to open Tuesday at Caribou despite not yet being able to practice on their home fields.

“We used small tractors on both to remove snow and the fields are now clear, but now we’re dealing with flooding,” he said, noting the swollen Fish River is submerging part of the outfield on the school’s baseball field. “At this point, we’re day by day. Kind of like the Red Sox, but at least we only have to get in 16 games as opposed to 162.”

Still, Werntgen faces the task of fitting those 16 games into a one-month window, which will be difficult when working around other school activities and more inclement weather which is sure to come.

Nearby Wisdom High School in St. Agatha also has fields that are not yet usable, according to Athletic Director Ralph Fantasia. Even though the school parking lot has been utilized recently by the Pioneers’ softball team, like most Aroostook County schools, a majority of practice time is spent in the gymnasium.

“You can’t recreate the conditions of a ground ball, fly ball and game-time situations when you are on a hardwood floor as opposed to being out on a field,” Fantasia said. “That batting cage cannot truly recreate the movement on a pitched ball.”

Caribou baseball coach Scott Hunter said his team is “about three weeks later than we were last year” in being able to get out on its field for practices and games. He said indoor practices have runs its course for both the players and the coaching staff.

“A lot can be done indoors as far as teaching fundamentals and going over situations, which I really like and think is valuable, but after a few weeks it becomes boring and cumbersome for the kids and the coaches,” Hunter said. “They just want to get outside and play.”

He said although the baseball field had been off limits, his team was able to practice on the softball field on a couple occasions last week and he immediately saw a difference in the players’ attitudes.

Like Hunter, Fort Fairfield baseball coach John Ala is a former Caribou High School player with memories of spending plenty of the time in the gymnasium during the preseason.

“I remember working on the fundamentals with (former coach) Jim Saucier, and he did a great job breaking down pitching and hitting mechanics and keeping us engaged and motivated,” said Ala, who played for the Vikings in the 1990s. “Now as a coach, I realize how difficult a job it is to prepare a team indoors for a sport meant to be played outside.”

Ala said while inside, his team focuses on “every aspect of the game that we can in a smaller space,” including rundowns, cutoffs, footwork and base coverage.

While many teams are still looking to play their first regular season contest, several other Aroostook County schools have only played one or two games so far. Even one of the southernmost schools in the region, Southern Aroostook, has been unable to get on its fields.

“This is the latest I remember,” said Jon Porter, who serves as principal at Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook. “It’s been challenging for our players and coaches. They are finding spaces to practice inside and out, but just not on the fields.”

Heather Bradbury is into her second year as the athletic director at Central Aroostook Junior-Senior High School in Mars Hill. She also acknowledges the late start to the season, the typically rainy weather in the spring and having to work around all the end-of-the-year school activities (such as proms, field trips, FFA state convention, academic banquets, band and chorus concerts) makes it very challenging to fit all the games in by the end of May.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare, but it is what it is and [Aroostook County athletic directors] know going into it that it’s going to be a struggle,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury added the school’s baseball team was out early last week shoveling snow off the field and is hopeful that both the softball and baseball teams will be able to host their scheduled games the remainder of the week.

Jordan Beaulier coaches the baseball team at Ashland and knows it’s going to be tough for his team to be able to get in all the games during the regular season. He said with the new MPA rule instituted in 2017 which limits pitch counts and requires more time off in between outings based on the number of pitches thrown, Aroostook County baseball squads, especially small Class D schools with a limited player pool, are really at a disadvantage.

Beaulier said the development of numerous pitchers on a roster is necessary in order to be competitive.

“County teams will have to be creative to win ball games,” Beaulier said. “With games having to be played back-to-back multiple times a week, it makes it hard on the pitching.”

The MPA is allowing teams to play abbreviated five-inning games as part of doubleheaders this spring in order to more easily fit the games in, provided both coaches agree beforehand.

Terry Hunter, the 23rd-year coach of the Ashland softball team, acknowledged that will certainly be a benefit to baseball teams in the area due to the new pitch count rule, but he feels the MPA should take it a step further by extending the season a few days for both baseball and softball teams.

“The prelims don’t begin until June 5, so there are a few extra days available to get the games in,” Hunter said. “The softball season has been geared around the teams from southern Maine. April 12 is the first day the MPA allows games to be played, which does nothing for us. They are outdoors practicing or playing games, while we are still shoveling snow.”

Baseball teams from Fort Fairfield and Caribou have both made it all the way into the state championship game within the past five years, and several local softball teams have been able to reach the regional finals consistently. Fantasia said those achievements should not be discounted due to what those schools are up against.

“When County schools are able to do well in the postseason, it really does make that accomplishment more significant given that southern schools have such a huge head start,” he said.

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