The 2015 American Legion baseball state tournament will start where the 2014 event concluded for defending state champion Coffee News of Bangor.
The Comrades, who enter this year’s eight-team state tournament as the Zone 1 tournament runner-up, edged Bessey Motors of South Paris 2-0 in last year’s state final behind the two-hit pitching of tourney MVP Andrew Hillier and Trevor DeLaite and a two-run, sixth-inning double by Sam Huston.
Now coach Dave Morris’ club (15-7) will seek to defend its first state Legion title since 1979 beginning with an opening-game rematch against Bessey Motors on Wednesday afternoon in South Portland.
Bessey Motors (19-3) swept through the Zone 2 tournament undefeated after a regular season that concluded with three straight losses after a 16-0 start.
Game time is 3:30 p.m. on Field 2 of the two-field Wainwright Complex.
“I think it’s going to be a great state tournament and we’re facing a good team right off,” said Morris, whose program has advanced to the state tournament for the 13th time in the last 15 years. “But you’ve got to beat them all, so we’ll just start off with a tough one right away but we like to think they’re going to start off with a tough one, too.”
The Coffee News of Bangor-Bessey Motors clash is one of four opening-day games in the double-elimination tournament, which will conclude Sunday.
Zone 3 champion Morrill Post of South Portland will face Zone 4 runner-up Biddeford-Saco Savings at 10 a.m. on Field 1, followed at 10:30 a.m. by Zone 1 champion Post 51 of Oakland against Zone 2 runner-up Tri-Town (Poland-Minot-Mechanic Falls) on Field 2.
The second afternoon game, also scheduled for 3:30 p.m., matches Zone 4 champion Staples Crossing-Eliot Post 188 against Zone 3 runner-up Sebago Lakers (Windham-Standish) on Field 1.
Coffee News of Bangor is seeking to become the first team to win back-to-back Legion state titles since Nova Seafood of Portland in 2008 and 2009. That effort will commence with what should be a pitchers’ duel between lefthanders DeLaite and Bessey Motors’ Riley Chickering.
Chickering pitched a complete-game five-hitter as Bessey Motors defeated Bangor 3-2 in the first game of last year’s Legion state championship round to force a winner-take-all final game.
DeLaite was unbeaten during the 2015 high school season in helping Bangor win its second straight Class A state championship and has had similar success this summer.
“Wednesday’s game will be a great game,” said Morris. “Obviously we’ll see Chickering and it will be a good battle between him and DeLaite, and if they can beat him then we’ll tip our hat.”
While Coffee News didn’t win its zone tournament — and was the zone runner-up entering states last year, too — the Comrades were able to bolster their pitching depth for the state tournament with the addition of Junior League swing players Nick Cowperthwaite, Jesse Colford and Brian Peirce. All three saw relief duty during the Zone 1 tournament.
“We really took a look at what we had for pitching knowing that we had three guys who played Junior Legion for us who weren’t with us all year long,” said Morris. “We really wanted to see what they could do, and the positive thing we come away with is we think we have some pitching that could help us out at the state tournament.”
Hillier, Peter Kemble and James Prescott also figure prominently in the Coffee News pitching plans.
“I think we have the pitching and I think we have the defense and if we can get that timely hitting I think we can beat anybody,” Morris said. “I think we have two of the better pitchers in the state (DeLaite and Hillier) and then we have a good complement of pitchers behind them.”
Zone 1 champion Post 51 enters the state tournament riding a three-game winning streak after falling into the losers’ bracket of the zone tourney. That run was capped off by a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Coffee News of Bangor on Sunday.
“I feel like going into this week this gives us some momentum and puts us in a good spot,” said Post 51 coach Rusty Mercier.
Post 51, which qualified for states as the Zone 2 champion last summer before being shifted to Zone 1, boasts one of the more veteran teams in this year’s state tournament field. Just four players on the roster will be eligible to return to the high school baseball ranks next spring.
The Central Maine team, which draws players from Messalonskee of Oakland, Lawrence of Fairfield, Waterville and Winslow high schools, was led during the zone tournament by Devin Warren, a Messalonskee graduate now playing at the University of Southern Maine, and two other players bound for USM in the fall, outfielder Dylan Hapworth of Winslow and second baseman Jake Dexter of Messalonskee.
Dexter drove home the winning run in the Zone 1 championship game with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Post 51 opens the state tourney against 13-10 Tri-Town, which emerged from the seventh seed in the Zone 2 tournament to advance to the championship round.
“You’ve got to look at the whole tournament,” said Mercier. “You don’t want to start in the losers’ bracket, obviously, but we’re feeling pretty good about where we’re at hitting the baseball.”