Deering baseball wins third-straight Class A state championship; Rams hold off Cony, 2-1
ORONO— In the end, they were simply the best.
For the last three state championship-winning seasons, Deering's generation-next played the game of baseball with no fear and without peer. Five sophomores started the state championship game two years ago and walked away as seniors lugging the very same trophy back to North Deering.
They hit, pitched, and played the best defense, and they did one other thing better than any other Maine high school baseball team has ever done: They won, fifty straight times and counting, including back-to-back seasons of unblemished baseball. The bigger the game, the better they played, collecting a lifetime supply of hardware along the way.
On Saturday afternoon, the well-oiled Rams' machine hit a speed bump in the form of Cony senior lefthander Eric Lee, so they did what they always do, they simply found another way to win.
Deering senior lefthander Regan Flaherty (7-0), starting his third state game in three seasons, did his part by blanking the other Rams for six innings before his arm betrayed his trademark competitive nature.
No problem, this team even has a closer, and Flaherty's longtime teammate and friend, senior Matt Powers, entered the game and recorded the final out of three incredible seasons.
With two outs and two ducks on the pond, Powers induced a drifting fly ball down the leftfield line that was gloved by sophomore Nick Colucci to preserve a narrow one-run lead and cement this Deering team's place in history with a 2-1 victory over Cony (15-5) on a gray and drab afternoon on the synthetic turf at Mahaney Diamond on the flagship campus of the University of Maine.
"There wasn't a minute that I didn't think we were going to win that game," said first-year Deering coach Mike Coutts. "Regan was lights out. Boy did he pitch well. He got a little too excited out there in the last inning. He wanted to finish the game and I don't blame him. It's a testament to these guys that they can come out here and win a game with pitching and defense."
Deering (20-0) loaded the bases in the top of the first inning with no outs, but managed to push only two runs across on RBI grounders by seniors Taylor Candage and Jack Heary. Lee (5-3) settled down and blanked the state's top-scoring offense the rest of the way, despite recording just four strikeouts. In fact, Lee coughed up only three hits on the day, two to sophomore Sam Balzano, and frustrated the largely lefthanded Deering lineup the rest of the way.
But that's just it about this Deering team, the Rams can beat you with all three phases of the game. Flaherty took the ball and turned in his best pitching performance of the season, scattering four hits, two of them in the seventh inning, and setting down nine Cony batters by way of the strikeout. Flaherty made a living on the outer half of the plate, nibbling the black with a hard fastball and occasional changeup. Flaherty improved to 2-0 in state championship play, adding to his 11-4 state final win over Bangor in 2007. Flaherty also had three hits and drove in three runs in the Bangor game.
"This is the third state game that I started for us," said Flaherty. "I'm used to the pressure and the expectations. This was probably the best game I've thrown all year. My velocity felt good and I was able to paint the outside corner. We have to give a lot of credit to their pitcher. We couldn't get anything going against him. It was just one of those games."
After cruising through the first six innings, Flaherty went out in the seventh filled with way too much adrenaline. As his velocity rose, so did his pitches, and he left one up that Cony sophomore Luke Dunklee deposited over the leftfield fence to pull his team within a run, 2-1. Flaherty got the next hitter to pop up foul to senior Marc Ouimet at first and struck out the next, but gave up a hard single to Cony senior Charlie Partridge and that brought Coutts out for a visit.
After 103 pitches, Flaherty reluctantly handed the ball over to Powers with two outs and runners on second and third base. The right-handed Powers, a convicted strike thrower, got ahead in the count 0-2 and induced a drifting pop-up down the third baseline to end the game.
The final out was a lot more interesting than it reads in the box score. Colucci, now playing shortstop instead of Powers, gave chase towards the line along with junior third basemen Jake Nichols and made a great catch on a ball hanging in the wind. With the two outs, the runners were moving, and both would have scored easily to give Cony the win had Colucci not made a late stab at the ball and snared it at the last second.
"Regan was big today," said Powers. "He deserved to win. I felt terrible going in for him. He wanted to finish the game, that's just the type of kid that he is. I was sitting next to him in the dugout in the sixth and he told me that he wanted us to go down in order so he could go back out there and win the game. I couldn't believe it. But he's always been that way. He was so pumped up he couldn't throw strikes."
The Deering offense struggled mightily to make solid contact against Lee all day. In the top of the first inning, Balzano singled to the left of the second base bag to leadoff the game, same as he did in the regional final (a 16-10 win over Scarborough, in an surprising slugfest), and Lee walked Powers (two walks) and Flaherty (two walks) to load the bases. Senior Taylor Candage and Heary followed with groundballs to the infield. Candage's grounder brought home Balzano, and Heary's dribbler to short scored Powers for a 2-0 lead.
"It was an interesting game," said Heary. "It probably wasn't a lot of fun to watch. They threw a little lefty at us and he wasn't overpowering but he had a lot of nice off-speed stuff. We probably shouldn't have won yesterday, and we definitely shouldn't have won last year's game. But we always do. We feel confident in each other. Because of that we never have any doubt in our minds and that carries us. We've learned a lot over the last three years. We've grown up."
Deering's third straight Class A state final marks the second time the program has pulled off the trifecta (1999-2001 was the other). Deering captured its Maine-best 12th state championship title, its eighth in 12 years. Not counting league championship play, the Rams have won 50 straight baseball games dating back to a 3-2 loss at Biddeford May 10, 2007.
They did it with five seniors that will go down in Deering lore with the best of the best in Flaherty, Powers, Candage, Heary and Ouimet, leading the way. After going to the Babe Ruth World Series as freshman, they went on together and won three Class A state titles. Flaherty finished his career on the mound at 15-0, and Candage finished 17-0. Candage also boasts perhaps the two biggest home runs during this dynastic stretch, his two-run shot in extra innings against Brewer in the 2008 state game, and his three-run bomb against Scarborough last Wednesday.
Along the way they faced their share of adversity, from off-field controversy and the eventual loss of Matt Watson, their longtime catcher and the sixth piece of that puzzle. That's not something to be overlooked. Watson, like Flaherty, was drafted in the middle rounds of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft by the Houston Astros. Still, they never skipped a beat on the field and proved in the end to be the ultimate champions.
"This is a really great group of kids," said Coutts. "As good a group of guys I've ever been around. In the past they had a reputation. But after the game the Cony coach came over and told me how impressed he was, and how impressed his kids were, at how we went out and played the game. He talked about how we played the game the right way and that meant a lot to me."