AUGUSTA — It would have been nice for the Messalonskee baseball team to win its third straight Eastern Maine Class A final in the past three years Tuesday, but at least the Eagles had a shot at it before falling to top-seeded Bangor 6-3.

Messalonskee has had a shot at winning something in each of the past half dozen years, a product of a youth baseball program that has churned out state championships with the regularity of rainy spring days in Maine. The coaches will tell you it’s all about the players and the players that it’s all about the coaches. In truth it’s a little of both.

“When Sam was 4, I started,” said Tom Dexter, former Colby College head baseball coach and current assistant, of his son, now a sophomore for the University of Southern Maine. “When he hit the 9-year-old all-stars we had a real good class.”

When Sam Dexter was a senior at Messalonskee, the Eagles won their first Class A state championship. His younger brother Jake, who pitched in Tuesday’s game, was a freshman starter on that team. Last year, they reached the state final again, this time losing to Westbrook.

The success of the high school program is a direct result of the success the players have enjoyed at the Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth League levels, where state titles are an expectation. The Central Maine teams have included players from Waterville, Winslow, Lawrence and Oakland and as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. All four communities have benefited from youth level success — Waterville won state Class B titles in 2010 and 2011 and Winslow played in the final last year.

“What made us successful was how well the kids from all four towns got along,” said Butch Cunningham, who has coached Cal Ripken teams to several state titles.

Baseball is a tough sell these days. Cunningham has seen the number of Cal Ripken teams in Belgrade, Oakland and Sidney cut in half as players drift to other activities. His goals have been to make the sport fun and inclusive while teaching the fundamentals. It’s a fine line that many coaches aren’t willing to tread.

“We worked pretty hard once we started going,” Dexter said.”I held them to a higher standard and they seemed to feed off it.”

There’s no easy formula for creating any successful youth program but once you’ve found it, the benefits are manifold.

“It just carries up,” Cunningham said. “A lot of these kids won before they got here. To me the biggest thing is how these kids have played in big games.”

Dexter and Cunningham are reluctant to accept credit for the high school team’s success although they obviously played an integral part in it. It took a cadre of parents and coaches to get on board. Cunningham cited Scott Mayo and Mike Nutting as indispensable all-star coaches and Shawn Wilkie and Dale Breton who set the groundwork earlier.

Dexter moved up with his sons and finished last year in American Legion ball. He won’t be back but hopes someone else takes up the coaching torch. He gets as excited at coaching kids as he does collegians, he said.

“You need some guys who are excited about baseball,” he said. “It’s hard to fake it.”

Kids don’t play nearly as much baseball on their own as they used to and consequently arrive in junior high — Cunningham coaches a 7th grade middle school team — with a lack of fundamental skill. That makes teaching fundamentals that much more important. So is the development of each player.

“We really try to develop each kid,” Dexter said. “When the younger kids see that, they follow it.”

Cunningham, whose son Jake starts for the high school team, said this will be his last year coaching Cal Ripken although he’s exploring coaching an AAU team next year. His passion for the game is tempered by a reality associated with the sport, and he tries not to sell prospects a bill of goods.

“The game of baseball is a game of failure,” he said. “If you can’t accept it, this is not a sport you should be playing.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @GaryHawkinsKJ


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