The Maine Black Bears wrapped up their practice shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday at the IPF. The fourth seed in the Oxford Regional appeared to feel very much at home.
"It's been raining for two and a half weeks in Maine," said senior third baseman Greg Creek. "So this is really nothing new to us. We've needed some time on the field, so this facility is perfect for us. It was nice to be in here and let the ball fly a little bit."
Everyone in the Black Bear entourage said it has been one of the worst springs for baseball in many years in the most northeastern of all the United States. Maine head coach Paul Kostacopoulos agreed.
"We have had horrible weather," said the ninth-year UM head coach who was for seven seasons (1990-97) the head coach at Providence of the Big East. "We haven't been able to practice on our field except maybe a dozen times since the season started. We would like to have practiced on the field today (Swayze). Everyone likes to get used to their surroundings and feel comfortable going into the tournament, to be able to look around and know where everything is. But that's the way it is. As I told the players, it's still 90 feet to first base and 60 feet, six inches to home plate."
Of the 51 games they played this season, the 37-14 Bears played only 14 games in their home park in Orono, Maine.
"Buses and planes and travel do not bother us," said Kostacopoulos. "We went through Detroit to get to Memphis and then bused here. We've done things like that historically throughout our history of baseball."
Coach K says his team is much more concerned with the tournament and the opponents than it is the weather or the distance from Maine to Mississippi.
"It's more playing Ole Miss and playing one of the best teams in the country and a tough field of teams," he said. "I am going to be biased by saying this, but this is a tough Regional. Oklahoma and Southern Miss are pretty good teams, too."
Black Bear baseball is no stranger to success. Ole Miss has been to the College World Series four times and the NCAA Tournament 11 times.
Maine has played in the College World Series seven times, the last in 1986. The Bears have participated in 13 NCAA tournaments.
But it's been since 2002 that they were in baseball's Big Dance. Creek, one of only a handful of seniors on the Maine team, was a member of that team which played in the Los Angeles Regional hosted by Southern Cal. He says he's tried to give his teammates some pointers heading into this weekend.
"I've tried to tell them what a great thing it is to be in a Regional, and what a great time it will be wherever we go," said Creek, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder. "I've told them that it might be a once in a lifetime experience, so let's enjoy it while we're here."
Maine will start junior Greg Norton, a 6-3, 215, right-handed pitcher. Norton is not necessarily considered the ace of the staff. That honor most likely goes to 6-3, 225, sophomore right-hander Steve Richard, although Coach K says he does not like to use the term "ace."
Richard, a hard-throwing, fast-ball pitcher, saw more time on the mound during the Bears' run to the America East Conference Tournament championship. Norton, more of an off-speed, mix it up, change of pace type thrower, pitched a complete game last Friday and hasn't thrown since.
"It was a bit of a surprise to me," said Norton (2.93 ERA, 9-3 record, 14 appearances, 83 innings) of getting the Friday night start. "Our No. 1 guy (Richard) pitched so many innings in the conference tournament is the reason I got the nod."
Norton's last outing was an impressive one - a 12-0 win over top-ranked Northeastern last Friday, written up as the "game of his life" in the Maine postseason media guide.
"The last game for me (his first collegiate complete game, allowing only six hits, all singles, in nine innings) was my best game of the season," the South Portland, Maine, product said. "Hopefully that will carry over into Friday night."
Creek says the Bears bring a solid team to Oxford, one he hopes will be at the top of their game against the 44-18 Ole Miss Rebels.
"We've got strong starting pitching," said Creek, the team's leading hitter at .345 and with a team-best nine home runs. "We're a good contact team. We don't strike out much. We get the bat on the ball, and if we do find some holes, we should be allright. We do compete at a high level."
Coach K agreed with his star's assessment.
"We've been able to pitch effectively at the top of our staff," said Coach K, whose team has a batting average of .310 with 36 home runs, and a pitching staff ERA of 4.00 in 51 games. "We've been able to bunch hits together. That's been our key. When we score some runs, it seems we score two or three or four at a time. That's when we've been successful."
"We don't look to do a lot of different things. We are pretty much a station to station baseball team. We look to steal a lot of bases. We have to play defense. That's the biggest concern I have coming into this tournament.
"We have to be able to keep this game to 27 outs. We can't make it a 30 or 31 out game. That's been a problem for us all year. We are young defensively. On the left side, we have two freshmen playing third and short, both critical positions. We feel they are going to be very good players. Now whether they are ready for the speed of this game right now, we'll find out.
"We need to settle into the game in the first four innings. That's what our key is. Once you get your feet on the ground, it's like anything else, you get better as things go along. We have to handle the first three or four innings and make this a short game. Then you never know what can happen."
Maine ready for Regional
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