In his 27 years at the University of Southern Maine, baseball coach Ed Flaherty has tapped into talent from just about every high school in central Maine. From larger high schools like Cony and Mt. Blue to smaller ones like Hall-Dale and Monmouth, players have sought out Flaherty and the Huskies, who have never experienced a losing season together.
Over that span, USM has developed into one of the top Division III programs in the country, playing in six World Series, winning two, in 1991 and 1997. Many of Flaherty’s players were recruited by Division I colleges or have transferred from those schools, including two on this year’s roster, knowing full well that the program has funneled several into the professional ranks.
This season, there are six central Mainers on the Huskies roster, two from Messalonskee, three from Erskine Academy and one from Gardiner. Flaherty has mined talent from the central part of the state although much of his recruiting base covers the Portland area and points south.
“He just stayed with me from the get-go even when I was talking to other schools,” freshman Sam Dexter said. “In the end I really appreciated that. That was the reason why I came here.”
Dexter, who led Messalonskee to the Class A state championship last season, was recruited by several schools, including Div. I UMass Amherst and Bryant. He’d heard a lot about USM and Flaherty from his father Tom, a former head baseball coach at Colby and now an assistant.
“They play hard and they do everything right,” Dexter said of his father’s words.
Flaherty knew he was getting a top-notch player in Dexter and has already installed him as the team’s starting shortstop and leadoff hitter.
“He’s just a ballplayer,” Flaherty said of Dexter. “He’s above average in all his skills. He’s advanced in the knowledge of the game as any kid I’ve ever had.”
Other central Mainers, like Gardiner’s Forrest Chadwick and Erskine’s Nick Grady are key veterans and proven commodities while Flaherty expects junior reliever Nate Veilleux of Messalonskee to come into his own this season. Freshmen Shyler Scates and Ryan Pulver, both from Erskine, will also get their chance although there’s a lot of talent in front of them.
“You’ve got pretty much 30 guys who are into it year round,” Dexter said.
Chadwick turned in an impressive season last year and followed that up with strong season last summer in the Northwoods League of the upper Midwest. Last season at USM, he batted .322 with five home runs and 33 RBIs. As he did last season, he’ll play center field and bat in the middle of the order.
“He’s a stud,” Flaherty said. “He’s one of the most talented kids I’ve ever coached.”
Chadwick also has a great throwing arm and Flaherty said he’ll probably use him as a closer this season.
Grady, like Chadwick, has played both infield and outfield for the Huskies, but found a home last year at third base. Flaherty said he considers him the top defensive third baseman in the Little East Conference and will bat him fifth in the lineup. Last season he batted .356 with five home runs and 36 RBIs.
“He’s a gap hitter,” Flaherty said. “His strength is hitting the ball the other way. He’s strong as an ox and very athletic for a big kid.”
Flaherty believes Veilleux is ready to come into is own this season after pitching 14 innings of relief a year ago. His breaking pitch is improving and his control, is excellent as evidenced by the three walks he surrendered last season
“He works and he works,” Flaherty said. “He’s a leader, I think his day is coming. He’s really, really smart. When he keeps it down he’s really tough to hit.”
Flaherty expects Scates to get a start early on the team’s trip to Florida which begins Thursday. He likes the fact he’s 6-foot-4 and has excellent control.
“We’ve got high hopes for Scates,” he said. “He throws the ball downhill. He’ll be a starter for us early on and we’ll see where that leads us.”
Pulver is a reserve infielder who Flaherty said has a “big upside.” His hitting will have to improve for him to break into a strong hitting lineup, but he’ll get his chance and he may pitch a little, too.
“He’s got a really great arm,” Flaherty said. “I don’t want to give up on that pitching piece yet. He’s a good athlete.”
Continuity in coaching is another reason for USM’s success. Assistant Vinnie Degifico is beginning his 20th year with the program while Ed Boyce has been there 14. Bobby Prince was another mainstay of the staff before leaving to become head coach at UMass Dartmouth last year.
“I learn a new thing every single day here,” Dexter said. “The whole coaching staff, they want you to improve.”
Dexter said Flaherty and his staff holds every player accountable for actions on and off the field and has given countless speeches already regarding behavior As far as this season is concerned the Huskies were picked first in the preseason poll although Flaherty seldom puts much stock in that. He admits the team can hit and will score runs but a lot of the season’s success will depend on the development of some of his younger pitchers.
Gary Hawkins — 621-5638