University of Maine sophomore righthander Colin Fitzgerald has emerged as the pitching staff's ace for the 2023 season. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine had a breakthrough season, winning the America East regular season and conference championships and earning its first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance since 2011.

The team’s 32 wins was the most by a UMaine team since the 2013 team went 37-22.

But sixth-year head coach Nick Derba said the two drubbings in the Coral Gables Regional, a 9-1 loss to host Miami and 19-10 setback to Louisiana (Lafayette), proved that there is still a long way to go as the program continues to move forward.

“It was a very good season. I’ll take winning America East and going to a regional every year. But we didn’t play well at the regional and we didn’t pitch well,” Derba said.

“We have another step to take to be competitive on the national stage at this time of year. We need to take another step forward on the mound, which we knew. But it was very, very glaring this past weekend.”

The mainstays of the pitching staff were All-America East first team choices Colin Fitzgerald and Gianni Gambardella, along with Caleb Leys and South Portland’s Noah Lewis.

But sophomore Fitzgerald, freshman Gambardella and sophomore Leys each surrendered seven earned runs in 1 ⅓, 2 and 4 innings, respectively.

Only Lewis, a junior who was an All-America East second teamer, pitched well among the foursome, allowing four hits and two runs in 5 ⅔ innings in relief of Fitzgerald against Miami.

“I was surprised by how they threw. But we have a young staff and they went up against two very prolific older offenses,” Derba said. “The weird thing is the velocity was down for all of our pitchers. I’m sure nerves, heat and all sorts of things contributed. We just weren’t ready.”

Derba was also quick to point out that this year’s staff was dramatically better than last year’s and virtually the entire staff will return next season.

“Our biggest step forward came in our strike-throwing. We took a huge step,” Derba said. “And we will be even better next year. Pitching should be the strength of our team.”

Fitzgerald, Leys and Gambardella have to forget their disastrous outings in the regional but they can’t dismiss them.

They have to learn from them.

If they get to another regional, they will know what to expect this time around and that should be beneficial.

Gambardella finished with a 6-3 record and a 3.90 earned-run average. Lewis was 7-1, 4.32; Leys was 5-1, 4.94; and Fitzgerald wound up 6-2, 5.23.

To return three all-conference pitchers is rare and if the foursome improves like Derba expects, this could very well be the best staff in the league.

They do have to replace valuable closer Justin Baeyens (3-3, 4.67, 8 saves) but Derba could use one of his top four starters in that role since league series are three-game sets.

And he is hoping at least a few of his experienced relievers like Oxford Hills’ Colton Carson (0-2, 9.13), All-Rookie team choice Luc Lavigueur (1-3, 9.24), Ryan Scott (1-3, 9.68), Tyler Nielsen (1-2 10.00) and Sebastien Holt (1-0, 4.50) can make significant strides. Holt was limited to four innings due to a forearm issue.

Derba also has several incoming freshmen pitchers including Pennsylvania natives Jason Krieger and Owen Wheeler and Old Town High School’s Gabe Gifford. Derba expects one or two of them to be impactful.

The UMaine head coach will have to replace his first team All-America East double play combination of second baseman Quinn McDaniel from Eliot (.354 average-16 homers-45 runs-batted in, 32 stolen bases) and shortstop Jake Rainess (.321-16-47, 38 stolen bases). Both are juniors but plan on beginning their pro careers next season.

McDaniel tied Mark Sweeney’s school record for runs scored (77) and set the record for walks (60). Rainess’ 38 steals tied Danny Menendez for the most in school history.

McDaniel’s 1.13 walks per game was fourth best among players from 295 Division I schools and his on-base percentage of .513 was 14th while Rainess’ .72 steals per game was fifth.

But UMaine should still have a potent offense led by first baseman and AE Player of the Year Jeremiah Jenkins (.365-21-76), whose 1.43 RBIs per game is sixth best in the nation and his .40 homers per game is 19th.

Designated hitter Connor Goodman (.311-2-47), left fielder Nick White (.380-3-13, .477 on-base percentage), outfielder Myles Sargent (.273-6-21), center fielder Colin Plante (.252-2-16) and third baseman Jake Marquez (.248-2-20) will complement Jenkins and catcher Dean O’Neill will return behind the plate after backing up Ryan Turenne.

White returned to the lineup after a shoulder injury when all-conference second team center fielder Dylan McNary broke his finger.

Turenne got sick and missed the regionals and O’Neill, filling in against Louisiana, had two homers, a single and five RBIs. He hit .283 on the season.

Derba also said outfielder Logan Burrill has a lot of promise.

Sargent will move in to play second base, his natural position, according to Derba.

Derba is bringing in a number of shortstops including New Yorker Jack Friend, Miami native Jonathan Gonzales and Skowhegan’s Tyler Annis. New Jersey native Charlie Taub is a highly regarded catcher.

Derba expects his team to be solid defensively thanks to its athleticism.

UMaine has now won two straight America East regular season titles — sharing it with now-departed Stony Brook two years ago — and has gone 40-14 in conference regular season games during that span.

The future is bright and going to a regional will help recruiting.

There will certainly be motivation after the regional and it will be interesting to see if they can continue their progress so they can be more competitive in a regional.