The snow is finally starting to melt and with melting snow comes springtime, and with springtime comes baseball season. With home games beginning at the end of March, the start of baseball season is often heavy in travel. Last season, the Black Bears finished 25-29, placing sixth in the America East regular season. The Black Bears then clawed their way to the conference championship game, where they lost a close game in extra innings to University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Now, with eight fourth-years and seven third-years, the squad is looking very experienced. One fourth-year in particular, though, is looking to make his final mark on the mound this season for the Black Bears.
Left-handed pitcher and Taunton, Massachusetts native Connor Johnson is looking to finish his career in a Maine uniform on a high note. Along with fourth-year Jonathan Bennett and redshirt fourth-year Caleb Kerbs, Johnson will be looked upon for leadership this season.
“Being able to be considered a leader of this team has been great. It’s a great group of guys that work hard day in and day out. When everyone takes care of their business, it makes everyone else’s jobs a lot easier,” Johnson said.
Last season, Johnson appeared in a team-high 23 games, finished with a 4-4 record (tied for the team lead in wins), an ERA of 5.31 and struck out 30 batters in 39.0 innings. He also had a season-high of five strikeouts against St. Bonaventure and pitched a season-high 6.2 innings against Stony Brook.
It’s 2018, which means it’s a completely new season for the Black Bears, with new goals and new challenges.
“Having a great season, both personally and as a team, is the ultimate goal. We feel as though we have a great out-of-conference schedule that will really prepare us to have success once conference starts in April. Winning is the main objective, and I’m hoping that we can have a lot of success this season,” Johnson said.
Johnson has also changed his style of pitching this season.
“I actually dropped my arm slot down this year, so that’s really the main thing that has helped me improve. Being side arm, I’ve been able to get a lot more movement on all of my pitches. It’s something a lot of hitters haven’t seen, which will hopefully make it a bit harder to hit,” Johnson said.
The team also welcomed five new players for the 2018 season, meaning new chemistry will have to be made.
“The freshmen have been great so far,” Johnson said. “Having freshmen that come in with the mentality that they want to play right away is always what you want. New faces that come in and want to take on a starting role really boosts the competition level at practice, and makes everyone better at the end of the day.”
The Black Bears are also welcoming Nick Derba as their new head coach. Derba served as interim head coach last season, but it was announced in June that he would be the 25th head coach in the history of the program.
“Coach Derba was the guy that every single player wanted to take over the job. Having him be the interim coach last season was a great experience, and it really solidified the fact that we want him to be the leader of this program for years to come. Everyone was extremely excited when he got the full job and it is certainly well deserved,” Johnson said
One of the areas that Derba has stressed is academic achievement in order to prepare for the real world, and Johnson has taken that to heart. In his first year as a business student, Johnson was named a Maine Scholar Athlete Rising Star and was named to the America East Academic Honor Roll. In the past three years, he has been recognized as a scholar-athlete and was recently named to the Dean’s List for his success in the fall semester.
The way last season ended can definitely be considered heartbreaking. In the conference tournament, the Black Bears won four straight to advance to the championship game, where they lost 2-1.
“All of the returners have definitely used that championship loss last year as additional motivation, and that has rubbed off on the first year guys too. That one really stung, but it’s great to see the team doing everything we can to make sure we don’t have to experience that feeling again,” Johnson said.
Time flies in college and it’s easy to forget that there is a world outside of college athletics. Thinking of life after college can be scary.
“My plans after college are definitely still up in the air. If I get a chance to continue playing baseball, I’m going to take it, but if not, it’ll be time to enter the real world. Right now I’m not really sure what that would look like, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Johnson said.
The Black Bears return to the field March 2, 3 and 4 when they travel to Coral Gables, Florida to take on the University of Miami Hurricanes. They kick off conference play on March 31 and April 1 when they host the University at Albany Great Danes.