More Mainers than ever are on rosters of top college baseball programs across the country. And Brendan Tinsman of Cape Elizabeth believes he knows why.
“There’s more talent because there’s more opportunity,” said Tinsman, who is batting .277 with 10 home runs and 37 RBI as a freshman at Wake Forest. “(Training facilities) like the Edge Academy and Maine Hits have better technology to help kids develop their talents and I think summer ball gives kids the opportunity to get exposure.”
In 2010 there were fewer than 10 Mainers on NCAA Division I baseball rosters, and six of those were at the University of Maine. This spring there are at least 24 Mainers playing on 14 Division I teams as far away as Texas – with more talent in the pipeline.
At least six current high school players have committed to Division I schools, including Deering senior outfielder Trejyn Fletcher and South Portland junior pitcher Hunter Owen. They have accepted scholarship offers from Vanderbilt, one of the premier programs in the country.
In virtually all cases, the current and future collegians sought opportunities to be viewed by college coaches by playing for summer travel teams and attending showcase tournaments or college camps.
The rise in Division I college baseball players from the state can be tied to the advent of Maine-based travel baseball clubs, particularly the Maine Lightning. Based out of the Edge Academy in Portland since 2011, Maine Lightning’s top club team in 2017 had 10 players go to Division I programs with all 16 moving on to college baseball.
“That’s unheard of in Maine,” said Mike D’Andrea, the owner/director of the Lightning and the varsity coach at Scarborough High. “It’s definitely put Maine kids out there to compete against others from New England and land roster spots as well as scholarships.”
The Saco-based Southern Maine River Rats, run by Thornton Academy Coach Jason Lariviere, was established in 2013. Its first wave of recruited players are freshmen in college, including Brogan Searle-Belanger, a Thornton grad who’s now a freshman infielder/outfielder at Maine.
Maine Lightning and the River Rats have teams for a range of ages, including kids not yet in high school. Both offer indoor training with experienced coaches and travel opportunities during the summer. Costs for players vary by age group and the amount of travel involved. Each organization has a top-level team of high school players that competes at showcase tournaments, which are designed expressly for college coaches and pro scouts to attend.
D’Andrea, a minor league pitcher with the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s, has a long history of coaching in Maine. In 2004 he managed the Nova Seafood American Legion team, consisting entirely of Deering High players, that won the national American Legion championship.
“When I went out to the (Legion) World Series (in 2004) I saw one professional scout, maybe two and very few college scouts,” D’Andrea said. “Now, when I take my (Lightning) team down to the Super 17 tournament at Diamond Nation (in Fleming, New Jersey), there are over 100 college coaches.”
“It’s really about getting the kids at the right place at the right time in front of the right coaches,” said Ryan Copp, the coach of the Lightning’s elite team.
That usually means going to large regional showcase tournaments where college coaches can maximize their recruiting budget.
“Is Boston College going to come up and watch a game at XYZ high school to watch one kid? Probably not,” said Copp, a former assistant coach at Southern New Hampshire University. “These guys have a set recruiting budget. They drive up here and then get a hotel room, and before you know it they’ve spent $300-400 on one kid. As opposed to driving three hours to New Jersey or Rhode Island and a complex with seven fields, where they can watch three games at once and a potential of 100 kids at any given hour.”
Several Maine high school grads are thriving at Division I baseball programs this spring:
• Reese and Robbie Armitage, twin brothers from Falmouth, are both starters as sophomores at Marist. Robbie is hitting .317 with nine home runs and 39 RBI while Reese is hitting .276 with 29 RBI.
• Jackson Coutts of Orono, a sophomore at Rhode Island, is the Rams’ top catcher, starting 43 of 44 games and hitting .264 with four homers.
• Brandon Hall of Kennebunk (Thornton Academy) is another catcher doing well, making 23 starts and hitting .261 at Wagner.
• Trevor LaBonte of York, who did a prep year at Bridgton Academy, is in the starting rotation at Maryland as a freshman. While he has struggled in recent starts, Labonte is 5-6 overall and has struck out 40 in 50 innings.
• Ryan Twitchell of Cumberland (Greely) has been a hard-luck sophomore starter at Rhode Island, with an 0-6 record but a 3.18 ERA in nine starts.
• Jake Knop of Portland has made 29 starts and is hitting .286 as a sophomore at Manhattan. In conference play Knop is hitting .360 and has started 15 of 18 games.
• Connor Aube of Falmouth, a junior at Texas-Arlington, is a starting outfielder who leads the team in hitting (.345), hits (58), doubles (17) and steals (13).
Aube played travel ball for North East Baseball, a club team in Massachusetts. He played as a freshman at Division I Tennessee-Martin before eventually landing at Texas-Arlington.
“We play 16 high school games in Maine so that really doesn’t give you the opportunity to be seen, and in order to be noticed I had to play better competition and more games,” Aube said.
For Tinsman, his recruitment began and ended before he played a high school game. He attended a camp at Wake Forest while tagging along with his older brother, Chris, who eventually played at Rhode Island. Brendan Tinsman received a scholarship offer and made a verbal commitment to Wake Forest in the fall of his freshman year.
“Usually how it works is they see you at a travel tournament and then invite you to a camp but I found them,” Tinsman said.
This isn’t the first time Maine has had a run of top baseball talent. The current crop still has a long way to go to reach the elite level of 2004 when Class A baseball featured four future major leaguers: pitchers Mark Rogers of Mt. Ararat (the fifth overall choice in the 2004 draft), Charlie Furbush of South Portland, Ryan Reid of Deering and infielder Ryan Flaherty of Deering. Furbush and Flaherty were juniors that season. While Flaherty went to Vanderbilt and Reid to James Madison, Furbush started his college career at St. Joseph’s in Maine. Two strong summers in the Cape Cod League led him to being recruited by Louisiana State.
Ryan Copp was a Greely High senior in 2004 who played at Maine and then Division II Franklin Pierce.
“Back when I played, all we had was (American) Legion. You could go do a camp at a specific school but there were no travel programs, no college advisory programs,” Copp said. “If you had a Legion coach willing to make some calls you might get (Maine) Coach (John) Winkin to come down. We certainly had some other talented players in the state of Maine who never really realized what they could have done.”
When Maine’s next strong class graduated in 2012, seeking extra exposure opportunities had become more common. Ben Wessel of Scarborough and Louis Distasio of Yarmouth (Cheverus) played at Rhode Island. Joe Cronin of Scarborough and Luke Fernandes of Marshwood played at Boston College. Sam Dexter of Messalonskee and Cody Dube of Windham became Division III All-Americans at Southern Maine and Keene State, respectively. Cronin, Distasio, Dexter and Dube played professionally. Cronin is now playing for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos in the Southern League.
Wessel got noticed playing in the wooden-bat Showcase League, an eight-week autumn program that holds games at college sites around New England. He and Cronin attended college showcases. Wessel is still a bit flummoxed how players like Dube and Dexter weren’t joining them on a Division I diamond.
“It’s getting to a place where they’re going to be able to see you. It’s tough because you’re from Maine,” Wessel said.
Now those opportunities to be seen are more readily available for a greater number of Maine players.
Kennebunk High senior Derek Smith, a speedy outfielder with a quick bat, has played on Maine Lightning teams since he was 11. He committed to Division I Bryant University shortly after his sophomore year. Bryant, located in Smithfield, Rhode Island, has made three NCAA appearances since 2013 and is on track for its eighth straight Northeast Conference regular-season championship.
“Maine baseball is stepping it up. Definitely our AAU programs, especially Maine Lightning, they’ve really stepped it up,” Smith said. “They have loads of new technology and we’re bringing guys up early. And as people see more people getting into it, they get motivated themselves to get better.”