The northeast remains under the cold grip of winter, but there are signs here in Orono that spring is sitting in the on-deck circle. With the winter sports season coming to a close in the next couple of weeks, the University of Maine baseball team will take center stage with a rejuvenated roster and aspirations to run the table in America East in 2013.
“Our guys are hungry and a pretty motivated bunch right now,” said Black Bears coach Steve Trimper. “We don’t have that target on our back like we did back in 2011, but that doesn’t change our goal of winning the conference tournament and getting to the NCAA tournament.”
UMaine is coming off an up-and-down 2012 campaign where the Black Bears went through stretches of inconsistent play at the beginning and end of the regular season, but they had a 14-game winning streak in between that helped them into the America East tournament. The Black Bears got hot in the tournament and made it all the way to the conference championship game where they lost to top-seeded Stony Brook in the decisive third game of the series.
Last season’s early struggles were fueled by injuries to three pitchers in the first week of the season, which left the Black Bears shuffling their roster to fill the voids. Trimper understands that injuries are part of the game, but feels this year’s squad is more equipped to handle such situations.
“One of the keys for our team this year is that we will have a lot of positional depth and pitching depth,” Trimper said. “Injuries are inevitable, but the depth we have this year will allow us to sustain a little bit better.”
The depth the Black Bears have accumulated is due in large part to a strong recruiting class over the last two years. With pitching at a premium, Trimper went out and recruited freshmen pitchers Jake Marks, Burk Fitzpatrick, Charlie Butler, and Logan Fullmer, all of whom Trimper expects to have an immediate impact on the ball club. Trimper referred to the pack of arms as “the most talented recruiting class” he’s ever had.
Junior pitcher Tommy Lawrence is another arm that Trimper is especially excited about. After redshirting last season, per NCAA transfer rules, Lawrence enters the season as a highly touted talent who will be the ace of the Black Bears staff this season.
“He is hands down the one new guy that hasn’t had his name in the box score that people are definitely going to want to see,” Trimper said. “He transferred from Winthrop last year and had to sit, but his name is guaranteed to pop up in the newspaper every week this year.”
In addition to the newcomers, Trimper has a solid returning core that is headlined by senior shortstop Mike Fransoso and junior pitcher Shaun Coughlin.
Fransoso has been a key cog for the Black Bears since joining the team in 2009. The senior captain has hit .300 and played in 50 or more games in each of his three seasons with UMaine. In his final season with the Black Bears, Fransoso hopes to contribute to his team’s success again this year through all aspects of his game.
“I just want to continue to be a leader out there and help show these younger guys how to do all the little things right,” Fransoso said. “The goals for me remain the same as years past. I just want to get on base, cause some havoc and have these guys drive me in so we can score and win some ball games.”
Coughlin is coming off a sophomore campaign that earned him an America East First Team selection. The junior right hander appeared in 17 games for the Black Bears in 2012 notching four wins with a respectable 3.98 ERA and 51 strikeouts. Coughlin, who threw 82 innings last year, was pleased to see the additions to the pitching staff and is excited to share the workload.
“We depended on seven guys last year off the mound and it’s kind of hard to develop a staff with so few arms,” Coughlin said. “With so many new arms added to the staff this year, it will be nice to not having to rely on a small group of guys.”
Other veterans that will be looking to make contributions for the Black Bears this year will be sophomore infielder and outfielder Scott Heath, junior infielder Alex Calbick, junior outfielder Colin Gay, junior catcher and designated hitter Fran Whitten and sophomore outfielder Sam Balzano.
While the perceived expectation will be for Fransoso, Coughlin and other veterans to take their games to a new level, Trimper explains that’s not what he is looking for.
“A team concept has got to be put into place with these guys where everybody is playing to their potential,” Trimper said. “We don’t want to put pressure on just one or two guys, but instead have each guy get five percent better each week which makes us 40 percent better as a team.”
That team concept has been implemented and been taken in stride by players thus far. According to the players, the team has been putting in the necessary work while getting comfortable with each other both on the field and off.
“The older guys have been really good for the younger guys as role models and the younger guys have been able to catch on to things real quick here too,” Fransoso said.
“The team camaraderie is really good right now and we have a talented group of young guy’s right here that fit right in. Everything is that much more fun when you’re getting along and we are excited to get going,” Coughlin added.
The Black Bears kicked off their season over the weekend with a four-game series against the University of Auburn. The Black Bears were swept in all four games by the Tigers, but UMaine did hold their own in the series, as two of the games were decided by just one run.
The Black Bears will look to grab their first win of the season this week when they head down to Florida for a six-game road trip against Stetson University, Feb. 21-23, and Florida A&M, Feb. 24-25.