BANGOR, Maine — The American Legion baseball state tournament will return to the Queen City this summer — a year earlier than anticipated.

State Legion officials typically award the annual eight-team event on a rotational basis to each of the four zones statewide with this year’s tourney set to be staged within Zone 4, or York County.

But when plans to hold the event at historic Goodall Park in Sanford could not be firmed up, Zone 1 (central and northern Maine) officials accepted the opportunity to host and will hold this year’s tourney July 26-30 at Husson University’s Winkin Complex.

“I got a call the end of last week when they were unsure about Goodall’s status to see if we’d be willing to host it,” said longtime Zone 1 commissioner Dave Paul. “[Husson University baseball coach] Jason [Harvey] has been so good to us over the years that I wanted to give them the right of first refusal and they said they’d love to do it.”

The 2017 event will be the first Legion state tournament played at Husson since 2014, when Bangor defeated Bessey Motors of South Paris to win that program’s first state championship since 1979.

This year’s state tournament will mark the second straight week of American Legion baseball to be played at the Winkin Complex, following the Zone 1 tournament to be held July 20-23.

The zone tourney will begin with two play-in games July 20, with the winners joining the zone’s top two seeds in the three-day, double-elimination phase. The Zone 1 tournament champion and runner-up will advance to the state championship.

Junior Legion ranks growing

Seven teams will play in Zone 1 this summer: Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Motor City of Bangor, Trenton, Post 51 of Oakland and Skowhegan.

That’s one fewer than last summer, with the Dover-Foxcroft-based Penquis Navigators opting instead to focus for the next two years on a Junior Legion schedule that involves slightly younger players, those primarily ages 14-16.

Paul said Penquis will be one of seven Junior Legion teams based in the zone this summer, joined by Bangor, Hampden, Trenton, Skowhegan and two teams from the Oakland-Fairfield area.

Those teams will compete in the state Junior Legion’s North division, playing games within the division during the week with some crossover games against South division foes on weekends.

Paul said the expansion of Junior Legion in the region — only Bangor, Skowhegan and Fairfield have any history with the fledgling division — is meant to provide an additional baseball option for players in that age group.

“Obviously it was a disappointing blow to Mansfield Stadium having the Senior League World Series taken away, they had worked tremendously hard over the course of those 15 years,” said Paul. “What it does is sort of leave a void for those 14- and 15-year-old kids, and Junior Legion may be something that fills that void.”

The expanded Junior Legion ranks will vie for players with existing Senior League and Junior League teams, Babe Ruth Baseball and AAU travel teams in various parts of the Zone 1 geographic area.

“There are some conflicts as far as the time frame but it’s an outdoor sport and we can only play it at a certain time of the year,” Paul said.

“There’s a flavor for everybody, really,” he added. “Kids can play as much baseball as they want, which I think can only benefit our area.”

Paul and other summer baseball officials are determined to maintain the sport’s tradition in Maine against a backdrop in which the pool of younger players has decreased in many areas of the country. The multiple factors include the social media phenomenon, job commitments and competition from other sports such as lacrosse.

Paul said all eight Zone 1 Senior Legion rosters last summer had at least 16 players, with several teams fielding the allowed maximum of 18 players.

“The interest is certainly there, and I think us as adults and leaders of these different programs just need to keep providing the opportunities,” he said. “The facilities we have around here are unbelieveable, the coaching is very good and the interest in baseball from the kids is exceptional.

“There’s a very, very minimal percentage who go on to be professional baseball players so hopefully they have a lot of fun doing it and make lifelong friendships and a lot of memories to look back on. Then when they become adults they’ll get back into it and that cycle will continue.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...