James Neel was eager to return to the baseball diamond as soon as his high school season ended.
The rising junior infielder from Bangor High School had seen it all during his first two years with the Rams. First, he helped the team capture its fifth consecutive Class A state championship as a freshman in 2018 and then last spring he experienced the program’s first season out of the playoffs in 35 years.
“I was ready to get right back out here this summer,” Neel said. “I think we all were. It just shows how much of a drive we have to be successful.”
Neel is among 32 of the 36 players on Bangor’s 2019 varsity and junior varsity rosters now competing for the city’s Senior Legion and Junior Legion baseball programs. It’s mostly for the love of the game, but it’s also an effort to gain experience in a push for playoff success come 2020.
“There are a lot of young guys out here that are improving,” Dave Morris, head coach of both the Bangor High School varsity and Coffee News Comrades Senior Legion teams, said before Thursday’s Legion contest at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor against R.H. Foster of Hampden.
“They played a lot during the high school season and obviously we had a tough season, but baseball-wise we were getting better.”
Morris knows the value of a commitment to offseason improvement. He was the starting catcher on the last Bangor High School team that did not qualify for postseason play in 1984 despite a 9-7 record.
The next year Morris and the Rams went 20-0 and won the Class A state title.
Continued improvement for next year’s high school contingent largely involves experience, as one factor in Bangor’s recent success is the number of games the teams have played.
The high school squad played 20 games in each of its five state championship seasons and the Senior Legion program has played 30 to 40 additional games during its five-summer run that includes state titles in 2014, 2015 and 2017, a runner-up finish in 2016 and a third-place effort in 2018.
“Baseball is a game of repetition,” Morris said. “We’ve gotten outside more this summer in the few weeks we’ve played than we did all spring, and that in itself is a bonus for everybody.
The Legion teams will face better pitching and face more good hitters during their season.
Bangor High finished 4-12 last spring with nine losses coming by one or two runs. The Rams averaged only 2.2 runs in those narrow defeats.
“We lost by [one or two runs] in more than 50 percent of our games,” Neel said. “It’s just one more big hit for us in those games and it flips our record the other way.”
That motivates Neel and his Bangor High teammates as they play at the Senior Legion level this summer. Two of Bangor’s recent state championship victories were one-run decisions — 5-4 over South Portland in 2015 and 4-3 over Falmouth in 2017 — along with several other memorable victories on the Rams’ way to the title games.
“Even [in 2018] in our big games we’d be the team winning by one run, and that means we got the extra hit that day,” Neel said. “It wasn’t a question of effort, it wasn’t a question of how hard we worked.”
Bangor’s efforts this summer to capture another American Legion championship and build the foundation for a return to high school postseason play is being aided by the presence of several older players.
“I see a lot of potential,” said Tyler Parke, a former Bangor High standout who returned to the Comrades this summer after completing his freshman season at the University of Southern Maine.
“I think a lot of them are starting to get it playing with older guys like Nick Canarr, me, [Zach] Cowperthwaite and [Noah] Missbrenner. They’re starting to see how it goes and see what it takes, not necessarily to win championships, but to be a successful team.
“Being a successful team is not about winning championships. It’s about winning and working hard and doing tough things well.”