Apr. 21—In his first season at the helm of the Winthrop baseball team, John Novak has a bounty of pitchers at his disposal. The problem this year will be figuring out which positions to take from when making moves on the mound.
Novak, the school's former JV coach who was set to take over the program last year before the spring season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, said the Ramblers have eight pitchers this year, "which can give us the ability to go deep into the playoffs." He added that fielding should be another strength of the 2021 team.
What Winthrop lacks is roster size, despite what Novak calls a lot of talent.
The Ramblers' numbers will be bolstered by a couple of players returning to baseball after not playing for a few years, senior Ian Steele and junior Jayden Peters. And looking at the future, Novak said there are 30 players spread across two teams at the middle school level.
Gavin Perkins, Chase Keezer, Owen Foster and Jac West are all seniors back from the 2019 team, along with juniors Andrew Foster and Logan Baird.
Though Winthrop doesn't have a lot of players, many of its players have a lot of shared experience.
"A lot of this team has been together since they were kids, so they have a special bond, especially the juniors and seniors," Novak said.
The last time they took the field, Oxford Hills and Lisbon were playing in state championship games. Now, nearly years later, those two programs have little resemblance to the teams that played in those contests.
The Vikings have four players back from the team that lost the Class A state final in heartbreaking fashion, having lost 10 players combined to graduation in 2019 and 2020. The Greyhounds have five returners from the 2019 Class C state championship team.
Both teams do have familiar faces at the head coaching spot. Shane Slicer is in his 18th season at the helm of Oxford Hills, and Randy Ridley is back for a 21st year at Lisbon.
Slicer's 2019 team rode the wave of a senior class, along a solid group of juniors, that had played a lot of winning baseball in their careers. This year's team is young, and they might experience some growing pains, Slicer said. But the talent is there, and now it will be about adjusting to the pace of Class A varsity baseball.
St. Dom's Bob Blackman and Monmouth's Eric Palleschi are both longtime leaders of their respective programs — Blackman for 18 years, Palleschi for 17. That's longer than any of Blackman's players have been alive, and likewise for the majority of Palleschi's roster.
This season, the Saints have 10 players, and all are underclassmen — one sophomore (Miles Frenette) and nine freshmen.
"As you can see, we are very young," Blackman said. "This year will be a learning and development year."
Monmouth, meanwhile, only has two players on the roster with varsity experience, senior Cam Armstrong and junior Hayden Fletcher.
"We are a very young team with a good bunch of athletes that need to learn to play baseball at the varsity level," Palleschi said.
On its way to the 2019 Class A state championship game, Oxford Hills first had to squeeze past both Lewiston and Edward Little in the North regional playoffs. If the Vikings are in the mix again this year, they could very well be jockeying for position with the Blue Devils and Red Eddies.
Edward Little coach Dave Jordan said his team is optimistic that it will be competing at a high level in the KVAC. Jordan's program is 44 players strong this year, and 10 of those players are back from the 2019 roster.
"The players have demonstrated great focus, effort and team chemistry during the preseason. The coaching staff has been impressed by the quality of play and depth at several positions," Jordan said. "Similar to other teams, we will work to make adjustments to whatever the season throws at us and keep getting better during that process."
Lewiston has four senior starters back from 2019 in Noah Hill, Keegan McLaughlin, Nathan Lyons and Danny May. There's also four returning juniors, along with, according to coach Darren Hartley, younger talent in the lineup.
Defensively, the Blue Devils want to throw strikes, be aggressive, pitch to contact and defend positionally.
The team is looking to keep pace with what Hartley said is a rugged Class A North, with contenders in Oxford Hills, Edward Little, Cony, Bangor, Mt. Ararat and Brunswick.
MVC rivals Mountain Valley, Oak Hill and Spruce Mountain will join many of their conference foes in the Class C postseason battle this season after being slotted in Class B in 2019.
The Falcons fared well in the higher class two years ago, making it to the regional semifinals before narrowly losing to top-seeded York. The Raiders also made the Class B South playoffs two years ago, while the Phoenix were the highest ranked team on the outside looking in.
The trio accounted for the only MVC schools in Class B South. In Class C South, they'll be fighting for playoff positioning with the majority of the conference's other members. Buckfield has also joined the MVC for baseball and softball this season, but will still be in Class D South for postseason play.
Novak isn't the only tri-county area coach in his first season at the helm this year. Buckfield, Dirigo, Gray-New Gloucester, Mountain Valley, Mt. Blue and Telstar also have new head coaches.
At Buckfield, Justin Davis is the Bucks' fourth coach in as many competitive seasons. He'll guide the Bucks through their maiden voyage in the MVC, with five players returning from the 2019 team that won 10 games playing at East-West Conference schedule.
Bob Karcher is the new coach at Dirigo. Also the school's varsity boys soccer coach, Karcher has three starters back, including all-MVC second-team catcher Dallas Berry. He's expecting a lot of close games, and the ability to win those games will determine how the Cougars fare in what Karcher called "a typically strong MVC conference."
Jon DiBiase is now at the helm of Gray-New Gloucester. A former JV coach at his alma mater, South Portland, DiBiase is the third coach in as many years for the Patriots, as Jim Beers was set to coach during the canceled 2020 season after longtime coach Brad Smith retired following the 2019 season. DiBiase takes over a program that went 2-14 in 2019 and has only three players back from that roster.
Ryan Casey has some big shoes to fill at Mountain Valley after Steve LaPointe stepped down following 40 years leading the program. Casey said this year's group has great chemistry and upperclassmen leadership, but some players with limited experience are going to be asked to make great strides for the Falcons to follow up on 2019's standout season.
Nic Koban at Mt. Blue and Scott Underhill at Telstar are both taking over programs that are in need of a rebuild. The Cougars were 0-16 in 2019, the Rebels 1-15. Koban said this year's Cougars have more upperclassmen than previous years, and he hopes that can translate to some success. A large, talented sophomore class could also give Mt. Blue a boost. Underhill said the Rebels are getting back to fundamentals and the players have made strides toward re-establishing the Telstar baseball program.
Leavitt was looking for a new coach, so the Hornets turned to an old name. Chris Cifelli is back at the helm after a four-year hiatus. He has a lot of seniors from his first squad back, but only five players total have varsity experience. Many of those upperclassmen are just getting back into the game or getting their first taste of varsity ball. Cifelli said he has up to 10 players who could get time on the mound.
Rangeley's Jeff LaRochelle said he doesn't know what to expect from his team, and who can blame him? The Lakers haven't fielded a team since 2018, and there's only three seniors on this year's team who were on that 2018 squad as freshmen. LaRochelle said the team should be able to score runs, but limiting mistakes in the field and making opponents earn their runs will be key.
A brief look at other area teams:
— The Roadrunners have "a lot of promise," according to coach Jeff Pillsbury, who is excited for this season. He said he has versatile players that have been playing for a long time and are passionate about baseball. Hunter Warren, Ben DiBiase and Pillsbury's son Kenyon are seniors who have been starting since they were freshmen. Pillsbury's has another son on the team, sophomore Kaden, who has also carved out a role on the team.
— The Raiders are in better shape than a lot of teams when it comes to being off for nearly two years. Head coach Chad Stowell has six starters back from the 2019 team, including senior pitcher/shortstop Gavin Rawstron, who was an all-conference selection as a sophomore.
— The Knights lost seven players to graduation last year and have only three players back from the 2019 team. Head coach Charlie Pray said the sophomore class boasts a lot of talent, and there is also a trio of talented freshmen on the team. He hopes the team can grow and be playing its best by the end of the season.
— Head coach David Frey only has three players back from the 2019, and two of them were freshmen last time they played. However, the reinforcements this season come from every class.