ORONO, Maine — Justin Courtney was in the stands last spring when the University of Maine and ace pitcher Tommy Lawrence squared off against future first-round draft pick Sean Newcombe and the University of Hartford in an America East baseball showdown at Mahaney Diamond.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a whole different game up here,’” Courtney said.
On Saturday afternoon, the former Bangor High School star will experience Division I baseball up close and personal.
The freshman right-hander is scheduled to get his first career start during the Black Bears’ season-opening series against Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Chain O’ Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida.
“To be in the position now to see all my hard work pay off, I think that’s great,” the poised Courtney said this week as UMaine made preparations to escape the grip of winter to play some baseball.
“I couldn’t be happier, and I really want to take full advantage of this opportunity this weekend against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and hopefully make the transition to pitching well this weekend and then seeing it play into a bigger role in the future, seeing some big-time innings,” he added.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Courtney is among three former Maine high school pitching standouts who will get starts in the series. Sophomore right-hander Jeff Gelinas of Saco is scheduled to pitch Friday, while senior left-hander Scott Heath is the Sunday starter.
Junior right-hander Jake Marks gets the nod in Saturday’s other game.
Courtney is coming off a 2014 season during which he pitched Bangor to Class A and American Legion state championships. He went 7-1 with a 1.20 earned run average and 77 strikeouts for coach Jeff Fahey at Bangor High School, then he was honored as the 2014 Zone 1 American Legion Player of the Year.
UMaine head coach Steve Trimper believes Courtney is ready to take the next step with the Black Bears.
“He has a great feel for the game,” Trimper said. “I equate it to the hockey guy that just has hockey sense and knows where to pass it before the guy’s there.”
Courtney features a fastball in the 86-88 mph range and utilizes a hard slider, a curveball and a change-up. He knows that being able to throw at least two pitches for strikes will be pivotal to his ability to make the jump to Division I.
“I just want to establish the fastball and work to locate my secondary pitches so I can get some outs,” he said. “You don’t have to strike everybody out. You know you have a great defense behind you.”
Courtney spoke to the new dynamic of training and practicing baseball full time after also having played soccer and hockey at Bangor. He was a finalist for the Travis Roy Award given to the top high school hockey player in Maine.
He enjoys working out with like-minded baseball players and praised the upperclassmen for their help.
“It’s good to have the leadership that we have, showing you around and guiding you and giving you tips to make the transition easier,” Courtney said.
Trimper praised Bangor’s coaches for effectively teaching and preparing Courtney, but he was quick to point out the freshman’s heady approach.
“Justin came in ready to go because of them, but Justin’s a special kid. He’s extremely mature,” Trimper said.
Courtney is optimistic that he can help the Black Bears win games this season.
“I just want to put myself in a position even to be in contention for that [starting] job,” he said.
“I know I have to work hard, execute my pitches and put us in a position to win,” he added.