AUGUSTA — So much about the Augusta 14U Babe Ruth All-Star team looks familiar these days. Augusta’s back in the state tournament, back chasing a regional tournament berth, and — after the way it began that endeavor yesterday morning and afternoon — back on track to make it happen.

It all looks familiar. The feeling for the players in the dugout, however, is not.

“We’re definitely more confident, and we’re more relaxed, having (had) the experience,” shortstop Kyle Douin said. “You can tell. Last year we were really nervous, but this year we’re definitely more calm and relaxed.”

On Friday, it showed. One year after taking the state championship in the 13-year-old tournament, Augusta got its title defense off to an ideal start in the 14-year-old bracket, beating South Portland, 5-0, and then Portland, 10-2, at Morton Field in Augusta.

“I think we’re jelling, and coming together more as a team with every game we play together,” coach Jason Douin said. “What I like to see most is they’re loose, they’re relaxed. I think that’s the most important thing for these guys, to stay loose. They’re having fun in the dugout, they’re supporting each other. That’s what’s going to make the difference.”

One field over, Augusta’s 15U team stumbled in its first state game, falling to Portland, 11-1, before bouncing back to topple Sanford, 6-2.

“We’re in a good spot. We came out flat the first game, but we recovered,” coach Taylor Lockhart said. “The first game, we weren’t locked in from the start. I think it’s important with this team to get out early. When we get out early, we’re fine.”

Though the feeling of winning at the state stage is not a new one, the players on the 14U team acknowledged that there are some key differences between last year’s team and this one. For one, Augusta arrived on the scene last year as newcomers to the atmosphere of a state tournament, and unsure of the challenges it would face upon getting there.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” first baseman Nick Barber said. “We didn’t know what the competition was going to be like, how good the pitching was, how good the hitting was.”

That unfamiliarity didn’t hold Augusta back last summer, and some of those areas of weakness have turned into strengths for this one. The players are poised after their experiences last year, and bolstered by a spring spent honing their skills against high school — even varsity — competition.

“Last year, most of them were middle school kids. This year, some of the players are freshmen,” said catcher Akira Warren, who started and hit in the middle of the lineup for Hall-Dale as a freshman. “They played high school ball, which is good because we faced better pitchers.”

That improvement becomes important at this stage, as Augusta has gone from being a team that could sneak up on its rivals in the state to being the one they’re all focusing on knocking off.

“I think we saw both No. 1s games 1 and 2, and I have a feeling we’re going to see No. 1 tomorrow (against Tri-County),” Coach Douin said. “So we have to assume that, yeah, these guys are coming after us and they want to beat us.”

It won’t be easy. Not with what Augusta put on display Friday. In the morning, Warren took the mound and baffled South Portland hitters, striking out eight in seven scoreless innings to shut out the one team to beat Augusta at this stage last year.

“(He) kept them off balance with a great combination of off-speed and then coming back in with his fastball,” Coach Douin said. “He controlled the game.”

In the second game, Logan Dupont — making just his second start since a season-ending injury suffered during the spring with Hall-Dale — kept Portland off the board until the fifth inning, but the Augusta bats took the pressure off, banging out 10 hits and taking control for good with a two-run triple from Barber that made it 3-0 in the second — one of two triples that Barber (four RBIs) gathered during the game.

Augusta also played errorless defense in the second game, showcasing a versatility that Coach Douin said has become a trademark for his team.

“Don’t give them the extra out,” he said. “Don’t make that error. Don’t make that throw, know when to hold the ball. I think that’s what these guys are starting to understand.”

The 15Us found their stride after an opening hiccup. After the loss in the morning, Alec Byron stymied the Sanford hitters, and Pat Rush, Jacob Brown and Matt Wozniak led an offense that took command of the game with six runs in the first four innings.

“Right after the first game, we all knew we were a lot better than an 11-1 loss,” Lockhart said. “We’ve been telling them all tournament, just keep grinding. Baseball’s a grind. They bought into it in the second game.”

Lockhart still feels good about his team’s chances of making it through pool play, particularly with a deep pitching staff featuring Brown, Nick Howard and Dom Deneco in addition to Byron.

“I still have three strong pitchers left,” Lockhart said. “I feel confident in everyone, some players on my bench were playing for their varsity teams this past spring, so I’m very confident in what I have.”

His team has work to do — as does, Douin said, his group. But with a pair of emphatic wins to start, the 14Us are looking like the team to beat again.

How familiar.

“These kids genuinely love being together,” he said. “They love playing together, and it shows. When you’ve got that, it’s a great combination of skill and team unity.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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