BANGOR, Maine - His players might not have believed it at the time, but Doug Sprague couldn’ t help but say how he felt about their chances to win a state title.
A couple of months and 14 games later, the Ellsworth Senior League All-Star team is preparing to play in its first United States East Regional championship tournament.
“This is my first state champion team. Ironically, the first practice we had, I told them that was my goal. I just felt good about our chances,” said Sprague, now in his 18th year as a Little League head coach. “When I told them that, I don’ t think a lot of them really believed it. They just kind of looked at me.”
Seth Cote was one of the non-believers.
“Well, I don’ t know that I didn’ t believe it, but yeah, we didn’ t really put much thought into that, especially after we started off losing five in a row,” said the pitcher-infielder. “But we got better and better as we went.”
Ellsworth will take on the winner of Friday’ s game between Gloucester, Mass., and the New Jersey state champion in an 8 p.m. game on Saturday. The East Regional is being played in West Deptford, N.J.
Due to injuries, conflicts with AAU basketball tournaments, and family vacations, Ellsworth had a very fluid, ever-changing lineup for the first half of the season.
“There were a lot of bumps in the road along the way,” Sprague said. “There were some nights we only had nine players and we had to bring up a lot of junior players to fill in.”
Those 14-year-olds not only filled in, but did so productively, making the team that much deeper when all the regulars were back in the fold.
The overall strength of the squad lies in its defense, especially up the middle, and pitching.
“It’ s really all just about playing good defense, and then we get a couple runs or so and hold them,” said center fielder and leadoff man Brad Folmer.
Andrew Hodge is the veteran ace with three wins and fellow righthander Seth Cote also has three wins in his first season of Senior League. Nate Dublin, 15, handles closer and regular relief duties while Folmer fills in as a situational reliever.
All four credit their fielders for making it easier on them when they’ re on the mound.
“That helps a lot, especially when you get behind in the count and have to throw one right down the middle,” Cote said.
Cote also credited second-year catcher Mickey Manning, the team’ s leader.
“He’ s an awesome catcher,” Cote said. “One game, he threw out six out of seven runners.”
It doesn’ t end there. Manning bats cleanup and also calls all the pitches himself.
“He calls a great game back there,” Sprague said. “He caught both games in a doubleheader in states in weather as hot as it could be and still threw runners out like crazy.”
When not pitching, Hodge plays third base and bats fifth. Cote plays either second or third and bats in the No. 2 spot.
Folmer used to play shortstop, but moved to create a spot for Jordan Carter, a former catcher who developed knee problems. Carter bats third.
Another musical chairs switch occurred when outfielder Dakota Jewett broke his leg in a July 4 family football game. Younger brother Nick Jewett was called up from Junior League to fill in and did so very well. Dakota has been cleared to play sparingly and will see some tourney action.
The rest of the roster includes Jason Sprague and Tyler Palmer, who share time at first base and bat eighth or ninth right fielder-left fielder Andrew Austin, who bats sixth or seventh utility player Drew Barkhouse, who plays catcher, second and outfield and bats eighth or ninth and outfielder Ben Curtis, another Junior League callup.