SKOWHEGAN — Gelling as one cohesive unit is routinely the greatest obstacle a youth baseball team all-star team faces.
Those that manage to do so most effectively and quickly, however, are often rewarded with tournament runs into late July and early August.
That has been the case for the Skowhegan 11-and-Under All-Stars this summer, as the team has yet to lose a game. It will host Eastern Mass. champion Riverside on Thursday at 3 p.m. in the New England 11U regional championship at the Carl Wright Complex. Riverside needs to beat winners-bracket champ Skowhegan twice to claim the title.
“Our defense has been solid and we’ve gotten good pitching,” Skowhegan coach Ken Reed said. “We talked about it early on, pitching and defense is how you win and they’ve done it.”
Leading the way on that front has been the trio of the Kyle Kruse, Cam Louder and Ethan Curtis.
Kruse has been the team’s top pitcher, getting a no-decision in a 110-pitch effort in the opener Saturday and earning the win Tuesday.
“Kyle wants to compete,” Reed said. “He wants to win and he wants to be the kid out there.”
Louder — the team’s primary pitcher outside of Kruse — and Curtis, meanwhile, have been about as solid as you can get from a middle infield combination. The two turned as effortless of a 6-4-3 double play you will see from two 11-year-olds in Saturday’s win.
“(Louder) was the MVP of the state tournament and it was well-deserved. He was the best player in the whole tournament in my opinion,” Reed said. “Ethan Curtis has had a fantastic tournament. Ethan is a solid player and a great kid.
“There’s a lot of great kids on this team.”
That, of course, is how Skowhegan has managed to enjoy the amount of success it has, as the local all-stars have displayed throughout the summer a key characteristic only very good teams possess — the ability to win in different ways.
In the opening round of the New England tournament Saturday Skowhegan showed its flair for the dramatics and erased a 4-2 deficit with three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning for a 5-4, walk-off victory over Oxford, Conn.
The following day the host team jumped out to a big lead early but still managed to hold off a strong charge from Marlboro, Mass. for an 8-6 win. Skowhegan punched its ticket to the finals Tuesday with its most impressive performance of the regional tourney, drubbing Riverside 13-2 in five innings.
“It’s been fun,” Curtis said. “We’ve had some good games, came back and played really good. I’m really happy with how we’re playing, we’re working as a team and things are going good.”
Skowhegan’s results this summer have hardly been by accident, of course.
While the players were split up on different teams for their house league, many of the same names that have starred over the past few weeks played together on an AAU team this spring.
“I think it was 12 games we ended up playing this spring,” Reed said. “We started out in March in New Hampshire playing, so a lot of these kids have played together before the season started.”
“…AAU was on a modified diamond so it was more real baseball.”
Playing on a different diamond did take a little getting used to — both initially and when they returned to play in the house league — as the pitcher’s mound was four feet further and the base paths 10 feet longer.
Overall though, Reed said the team enjoyed a good amount of success and the experience was positive.
“It was about winning, but it wasn’t,” Reed said. “We tried kids in new spots, we tried them in different places, different parts of the lineup and I thought it was really good for them.”
Some five months later, the players on that team are enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“It’s my first time playing in a regional tournament,” Louder said. “I was kind of excited because we’ve never really gone this far playing baseball with this team.”
Now Skowhegan is just hoping all that hard work ends with a victory in its last game.
“They’re playing as good as they’ve played all year,” Reed said. “This is a great time to peak and it’s great to be here.”