Most American Legion baseball teams didn’t play last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down spring and most summer sports.
Five area teams are excited to be playing again this summer, but many will need to constantly work to field a full roster in each game.
One team that did play baseball last summer is the Sr. Bandits, formerly the Turner Bandits of last year’s Summer Independent Baseball League. Most of the players from last year’s roster return, and they haven’t forgotten the success they had nor the bitter end to the season. The team pulls players from Dirigo High School, Mountain Valley High School, Leavitt Area High School and Hebron Academy.
The Bandits had a 6-1 lead against Motor City last summer in the Independent League’s state final before losing 7-6. This year, the Bandits’ sole focus is on winning a state championship.
“They know what’s expected of them,” Senior Bandits head coach Chuck Mollica said. “We had a tough loss at the end of last year and we were a couple outs away from capturing the state title over Motor City. We made a couple errors and after we were up 6-1, we lost 7-6. So the first thing that was talked about was, you know what is expected. It was a tough loss last year but we expect to be right back in the thick of it this year, and that’s our goal, to win the championship.”
Mollica, whose assistant coaches are Terrance McCormick and Central Maine Community College head coach Ryan Palmer, said this year’s squad doesn’t need to go through a lot of the team building on and off the field that many other American Legion teams do at the beginning of the summer season.
“I think it’s going to help tremendously,” Mollica said of the team playing together last year. “I think last summer, because of everything going on, the young men on the team really formed a really strong bond. They didn’t have anything else going on, they were on lockdown, no school, so they formed a really strong bond. There would be days we would practice and it’d be hot out and then they’d go swimming at Coos Canyon. I think the bond created last year will last even past this year or next year.”
Among the players expected to be catalysts for the Bandits this season are Leavitt’s Grant Mollica and Matt Wallingford and Dirigo’s Cole Brown, Dallas Berry and Derek Ducharme.
Another team that doesn’t need a lot of additional team building is Salem-based Ware-Butler, which is new to American Legion this summer, and is composed mostly of current Mt. Abram varsity and junior varsity players along with Rangeley’s Trevor Dolbier and one former Mt. Abram player, Nate Luce, who graduated in 2020.
Ware-Butler is coached by Mt. Abram assistant Jamie Phelps. While many of the players have experience playing together, their competition this summer will include players from larger classifications that the Roadrunners.
“It’s going to be a hard season,” Phelps said. “We don’t play a lot of these Class C, B and A kids. I wanted the kids to get as many at-bats and times in the field and to grow the Mt. Abram team for next year.”
Phelps said he had two players play with a team out of Skowhegan last summer and it made them more prepared to face playoff pitching this season. He’s trying to help all his players this summer get that same experience.
In its first two games of the season last Saturday, Ware-Butler beat Charlie’s Family of Dealerships (Erskine Academy’s Legion team) and lost to the Senior Bandits by a run. In the coming week, Phelps’ squad has games against Augusta and Bessey Motors (Oxford Hills) that will test the team.
“My ace pitcher, Hunter Warren, is going to Central Maine Community College next year and he is a top-two pitcher in Class C South, in my opinion,” Phelps said. “His stature isn’t very big but he throws from his heels. My shortstop, Ben DiBaise, I think he has a glove that can play in college. I’ve also been impressed with my catcher Kenyon Pillsbury, and all three of those kids were first-team MVC kids.”
In Lewiston, Pastime Club coach Chris Reed has been patching together so far this season.
Pastime has a few Lewiston High School players, one apiece from Edward Little High School, Oak Hill High School and Waynflete, as well as a couple of post-grad players. The difficulty for for Reed is filling a nine-player roster each game when so many also play travel baseball.
When every player is available, Pastime has a talented squad.
“I’m excited about all of them, we have a pretty solid group,” Reed said. “We have three guys who play for Lewiston that will be seniors next year in Andon Cox, Josh Murphy and Damon Bossie, who have been with the program and have been varsity players since they were freshmen. Obviously those guys will be the backbone to what we do. We also have a young catcher in Michael Dymkoski and we have Keegan McLaughlin, who just graduated this past year, so we’ve got a lot of our mainstay Lewiston guys who aren’t strictly travel guys.
“We have Patrick Anthoine from Edward Little and we have Luke Josephson, who is an Auburn guy that went to Waynflete. Oak Hill’s Gavin Rawstron is a part-timer, we were able to pick him up, and when he can make it, he can make it. He’s an excellent baseball player and he’s off to USM to pitch. We have a couple post-grad guys, Brodi Farinas, who was the No. 2 (pitcher) at Wentworth University and was a Lewiston grad. He pitched our first game for us and he’s excellent.”
Auburn isn’t fielding a junior or senior Legion team this summer because so many players opted to instead play travel baseball.
The Franklin County Flyers are back for the 2021 season. The young squad is again led by head coach Kyle Gunzinger and includes players from Mt. Blue High School, Spruce Mountain High School, Rangeley Lakes Regional School and Madison Area High School.
“We were looking forward to it,” Gunzinger said. “We had a year off, but the Mt. Blue guys did a great job of preparing the kids. And I was interested in seeing how we compete because I think six of our nine starters are 16. I was interested in our first game to see how they would do against good pitchers, and Augusta has two very good pitchers and they competed very well against Augusta.”
“We have some young guys,” Gunzinger added. “My nephew, Bryce Gunzinger (post-grad), Sam Wrigley (Mt. Blue), Isaac Parker (Spruce Mountain), we have a lot of guys. I have been impressed with Hunter Tewksbury, I think he batted .544 this spring with Madison. Hayden Dippner of Mt. Blue I think was all-conference in the KVAC and he’s only a sophomore.”
Bessey Motors, a powerhouse during the past couple American Legion seasons, also will have to grind to put together a full team this summer.
“I got real lucky (two years ago), where baseball pretty much came first, for my starters at least,” Bessey Motors coach Shane Slicer said. “Kids are trying, you can’t fault them, but at the same time, Legion has sponsors and a championship, it’s more than just a pick-up game. It hits you hard when you don’t have enough kids.”
Bessey Motors, as usual, features a large group of Oxford Hills Vikings, and when it has a full team it expects to be able to compete with the best.
“We have quite a few good players in the spring,” Slicer said. “Andrew Merrill, Wyatt Knightly, Ethan Cutler, Eli Soehren, we have a post-grad in Cade Truman, Brady Downing, a post-grad from Poland that I haven’t seen play much, Ty LeBlond, we have some good players, but it’s a mix and match.”