The University of Maine baseball team celebrates during its during the America East tournament to face the University of Massachusetts Lowell on May 25, 2023, in Vestal, New York. UMaine won 10-7. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

In Ryan Turenne’s freshman season with the University of Maine baseball team, the Black Bears lost 17 of their first 18 games en route to a forgettable 15-34 campaign.

But the catcher’s fifth and final season at UMaine will erase those memories.

The Black Bears are preparing for their first appearance in an NCAA Division I tournament since 2011 as they head to Florida for the Coral Gables Regional.

America East regular season and tournament champion UMaine, 32-19, will take on the host University of Miami Hurricanes, 40-19, at 7 p.m. on Friday at Alex Rodriguez Park on Mark Light Field. Texas, 38-20, and Louisiana (Lafayette), 40-22, will open the double-elimination tournament at 2 p.m.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that hadn’t had a winning record in league play for seven seasons until a year ago, when it went 21-9 in conference play to share the regular season title with now-departed Stony Brook. It had gone 75-89 in league regular season games during that seven-year span.

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“This means everything, really,” said Turenne, one of just two holdovers from that 2019 team along with pitcher Jacob Small, who has been injured and has taken on more of a coach’s role. “And it’s not just this team, it’s the guys who came before us as well. It took a full program effort to turn this thing around and get us to where we are now.”

Turenne said the most important ingredient to the turnaround was the team chemistry.

“We understand what our main priorities are. We’re here to play baseball. We show up at the field, do what we need to do and go on from there,” explained the Lynn, Massachusetts, native. “We aren’t playing the role of college student and partying. All the guys in the locker room mean business.”

Coupled with this year’s 19-5 conference mark, UMaine is 40-14 in its last two conference regular season contests.

“It has been a slow process,” said UMaine head coach Nick Derba, who is in his sixth season as the head coach after spending one year as the interim head coach when Steve Trimper left to become the head coach of Stetson in Florida.

He shouldered the blame for the early struggles.

“There was a steep learning curve for me. A lot of the struggles related to what I was doing,” Derba said. “I had to learn quickly.”

One thing he learned the hard way is not to overschedule. He no longer packs the team’s non-conference schedule with perennial NCAA Tournament participants and nationally ranked opponents.

It is difficult to build a winning culture when the losses keep piling up.

During Turenne’s freshman season, those 17 early losses included four to No. 6-ranked Florida State, three to No. 7 Mississippi State and three more apiece to Maryland and Liberty University.

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“There’s no better way to learn than getting punched in the chin,” Derba said. “You have to make sure you are cultivating a winning culture. You can’t play [Atlantic Coast Conference] teams for five straight weekends. You have to be able to learn how to win.”

The Black Bears still play some games against high-caliber and nationally ranked programs but not nearly as many as they used to.

Derba also recruited a deeper pitching staff and a deeper team.

“We used to be very thin on the mound. We only used five guys last weekend (in three America East tournament wins) but we had eight arms that could have helped us win. That’s very deep for an America East staff,” he said.

It was also important to have everyday players competing in practice for playing time, he said.

“For a long time, we couldn’t even scrimmage in practice because we were so limited by roster numbers,” said Derba, who has been able to expand his roster in recent years to create more competition for playing time.

Derba said losing most of the 2020 season due to the COVOD-19 pandemic was a blessing in disguise. UMaine went 1-12 during that abbreviated season.

“The players had baseball taken away from them and they realized how much they loved the game,” Derba said. “It also enabled [assistant coach Scott Heath] and me to talk until we were blue in the face about where we needed to be and what we needed to do. We had time to sit back, think and reflect.”

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At the top of the checklist when it comes to the recruitment of players is they must have an intense desire to win, Derba said.

“The program has come a long way,” said junior shortstop Jake Rainess. “To go from when we were 1-12 during the COVID year to where we are now is pretty special.”

He holds players accountable but he also “lets you be yourself” and teaches them the game.

Rainess added that Derba gives players the opportunity to coach themselves and he helps them develop self-confidence.

Derba admitted that it takes time to build a winning culture the right way.

“But we are now reaping the benefits from a lot of hard losses,” said Derba, who expects his teams to be among the top two or three in America East on a regular basis.