1. Pitch Counts make debut in Maine

For high school baseball, the game changed last spring.

The Maine Principals Association implemented pitch counts before the season, limiting how far into a game a starter could go and how quickly they could pitch again. Gone were the days when teams could stick with a pitcher as long as they wanted, leaning on their best hurlers to try to bring them a title.

Under the new rules, pitchers throwing up to 20 pitches didn’t need to rest before pitching again. Between 21 and 39 pitches, they’d need a day. From 40-65, they needed two. Falling between 66 and 95 required three days, 96-110 required four, and pitchers were not allowed to start on a new hitter after reaching 110.

The rule was implemented to protect pitchers’ arms, and according to Erskine coach Lars Jonassen, it had ramifications stretching into pitching strategy.

“The curious items were, what do you do when you have a batter 0-2? Do you waste a pitch, or do you go after him?” he said. “It added some strategy to the game also.”

The rule had an effect on competitive balance as well. Before, teams with an ace or two could overpower their opponents. Now it was just as important to have a solid third or fourth pitcher — if not more so.

“I think, in general, it helped everyone. You had to develop more pitchers,” Jonassen said. “All the input I heard was positive, and the main thing I heard from coaches was that it somewhat leveled the playing field, as opposed to coaches who might pitch someone 120, 130 pitches if he was their ace. It kind of leveled it out a little bit.”

2. MCI football caps incredible run with Class C state title.

When the 2017 season began, Maine Central Institute was the most unlikely of the 2016 state champions to repeat. Yet come November, despite moving up to Class C from Class D, the Huskies hoisted a second straight gold ball.

MCI struggled in its new conference early, opening the season with a 38-14 loss at Oceanside, and the Huskies were 2-3 after back-to-back losses to Cape Elizabeth and Mt. Desert Island. A loss to Winslow in the regular season finale gave the Huskies a 4-4 record and the No. 6 seed in the conference playoffs.

MCI opened the playoffs with a 33-24 win at No. 3 Nokomis, before going on a historic run to the state title. First, the Huskies avenged a regular season loss to Winslow with a 43-42 win over the No. 2 Black Raiders. Then, at No. 1 Mt. Desert Island for the conference championship, MCI took a 27-6 win, avenging another regular season loss.

Against Cape Elizabeth in the Class C state championship game, the Huskies finished settling old debts, taking a 30-13 win over a Capers team that beat them by 20 points on Sept. 22.

With a reported enrollment of 479, just nine students over the cutoff for Class D, MCI never felt sorry for itself of used its low numbers as an excuse. Coming off an undefeated state championship season in Class D the previous year, the Huskies had confidence. In each of MCI’s final three playoff wins, it executed at least one trick play that was pivotal to the win.

“It took us some time to adjust. We definitely took our lumps,” MCI coach Tom Bertrand said. “Our key philosophy is, put kids in plays we know will work if we execute them. You can expect some mistakes and breakdowns, but bend, don’t break.”

3. Messalonskee girls basketball wins Class A state title

With a talented group of players returning from the 2016 team that finished as Class A North runner-up, the Messalonskee girls basketball team entered the 2016-17 as the favorites in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. From an opening win over two-time defending regional champ Lawrence to a committing 58-33 win over Brunswick in the state championship game, the Eagles left no doubt.

Messalonskee went 22-0. The state title was the Eagles first since 1987, and first in Class A. Coach Keith Derosby’s team played just one game decided by fewer than 10 points, that opening game win at Lawrence. That also was the only game in which the Eagles were held under 50 points. Messalonskee led the KVAC in points scored and fewest points allowed, dominating the league all season.

“It’s just crazy to see how the community came together,” Messalonskee senior standout Sophie Holmes said in the aftermath of the state title. “To see Derosby achieve his highest point as a coach and to be a part of that was great.”

Holmes was a finalist for Miss Maine Basketball, and averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds, and finished her career with 1,389 points. Along with McKenna Brodeur and Lydia Dexter, Holmes was a strong senior leader for a relatively young Messalonskee squad.

4. Waterville-Winslow form unlikely co-op

In early March, Waterville won its second straight Class B state championship, the 22nd state title in school history dating back to 1927.

The Panthers made more history during the offseason.

Waterville joined with Winslow — it’s longtime bitter cross-river rival — to form the Kennebec RiverHawks, a co-op to help both communities save the future of their high school hockey. Winslow owns 11 Class B state titles, the most of any school in Maine.

“They’ve been talking about merging Waterville and Winslow schools and teams for years. This one, when I really heard a legitimate thing come up, my feeling was ‘Well, they need to,'” said first-year head coach Jon Hart, a former standout player for Waterville. “I don’t see anything other than kids being kids. I don’t see any division, and that’s the way we’re preaching it. There is no division. That’s why we went with the new colors and the new name.”

The RiverHawks began their first season in December.

5. Daniel Del Gallo is a D-III national champ

The third time was the charm for Dan Del Gallo.

The former wrestling star at Gardiner Area High School was back representing the University of Southern Maine at the Division III national championships,where he had gone a combined 4-8 as a sophomore and a junior. Del Gallo, however, knew his final trip could be a special one.

“I want to win a national title,” he said. “That’s not something that’s out of the ballpark.”

Del Gallo backed up his own talk, winning four straight matches to claim the national title at 149 pounds. He beat Ty Johnson of Concordia-Moorhead, Carter Armendarez of Wesleyan and Kenny Martin of Wartburg College to reach the final. He then fended off Aaron Engle of Cornell (Iowa), winning the title by a 4-1 score.

All along, Del Gallo said his confidence never left him.

“I really thought it from the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t plan on losing. I planned on wrestling as hard as I could for every match. I knew if just did that, I could win the whole thing.”

6. Skowhegan field hockey wins Class A title

It’s become almost routine, so routine, it seems, that it’s easy to lose perspective on what an accomplishment it really is.

When Skowhegan beat Westbrook in the Class A state title game in October, it was the third straight state title for the field hockey juggernaut, the 15th in the last 17 years and the 18th overall.

“We win a lot so people would think it’s not a big deal,” said Julia Steeves, who scored one of the two Skowhegan goals in the final, “but it’s a big deal every year. Every year we get so hyped we love it. And our community is so supportive. We get really hyped up for it.”

The championship game was the Indians’ 17th consecutive appearance in the final contest of the season.

7. Richmond softball has near-record win streak snapped

The Richmond softball team had won 88 straight games. It took one player, really, for that streak to screech to a stop.

The Bobcats were a win away from consecutive Class D title No. 5 when they ran into Penobscot Valley — or, more specifically, ace Leine McKechnie. The freshman struck out 11 Richmond batters, then slammed a three-run home run in the top of the seventh to put her team up 4-0.

The score stood. Richmond fell for the first time since the 2012 D title game — also to Penobscot Valley.

“We had a heck of a run,” Richmond senior Meranda Martin said after the game. “I’m upset a little bit, but I’m so proud of this team. We played our hearts out. Nobody else can say they’ve won 88 in row.”

And few ever could. The Bobcats’ winning streak was the fifth-longest of all time, according to the National Federation of State High School Association.

“All streaks have to come to an end,” Richmond coach Tony Martin said afterward. “We tried a little bit of everything, but we just couldn’t get there.”

8. Class E football debuts

Competitive balance has been a concern in Maine high school football for year. In 2017, the MPA took a big step in attempting to give struggling programs a chance to succeed, adding a fifth division, Class E, for programs trying to stay afloat.

The new class was proposed at the MPA football committee’s late January meeting, and approved in the spring. Six school — Camden Hills, Maranacook, Sacopee Valley, Boothbay, Telstar, and Traip — took part in the inaugural Class E season, although Traip of Kittery ceased its varsity season after a few weeks, citing a lack of participation as the reason.

Schools of any enrollment were eligible to participate in Class E. While there was no playoff, Boothbay and Maranacook met for a Class E championship game.

For Camden Hills, Sacopee Valley, Boothbay, and Telstar, Class E was a chance to revive dormant their varsity programs.

9. Cony swimming wins first state title in program history

Cony swimming coach Jon Millett knew he had a good girls team coming back heading into the winter of 2016-17. Historically so.

“This is the strongest team Cony has ever had,” he said before the season.

Then the Rams backed him up. Cony won the first state championship of its 21-year history, as the girls scored 311 points to top Brunswick (246) for the Class A title at Bowdoin College.

It was far from a lock. The eventual state champs weren’t even winners of their own conference, as Brunswick took advantage of its depth and a smaller field of teams to claim the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference title.

It quickly became apparent, however, that states would be a different story.

“After KVACs, the loss by a couple of points, we’ve never been more determined to win,” Anne Guadalupi, a senior, said afterward.

The Rams were led by a powerful quartet. Guadalupi won the 500 freestyle race. Sister Cecilia won the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke. Jorgensen won the 100 free, and Gabby Low snagged runner-up finishes in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke.

“They showed up in a very big way today, and they swam with a lot of heart,” he said. “They all performed beyond all wildest dreams.”

10. Jack Cosgrove hired as Colby football coach

Jack Cosgrove couldn’t say no.

There was an opening for a football coach at Colby College. Cosgrove, the former coach at the University of Maine, missed the sideline. The job was close to home — “down the street,” Cosgrove called it.

He couldn’t say no. So when Colby offered, the 62-year-old Cosgrove didn’t hesitate.

“(I) was hoping they would offer me the job. When it came to the point where they did, it didn’t take me long to say yes,” he said. “I was intrigued that it was a football program that I knew something about, and it felt like I could impact. When it came together, it just worked.”

Cosgrove went 129-135 at UMaine, making the playoffs five times in 23 years at the helm, before stepping down after the 2015 season to take an administrative job with the Black Bears. It didn’t take him long to miss coaching, however, and the Colby position allowed him to get back in the game while appreciating a stepped-down pace from the rush and grind of Division I. It also provides the Mules with a celebrity of sorts in the state on the athletic staff.

“I just got really excited with the opportunity, and I was fortunate and blessed they offered me the job,” he said. “I’m excited to get going.”

The hope is that Cosgrove, who turned a moribund Maine program into a Division I-AA (later FCS) contender, can revitalize a struggling Colby program. Count Cosgrove among those who thinks he can.

“Whether it’s Division I or Division III, football is football,” he said. “You block, you tackle, you run, you catch, you do all those things. … We’ll have standards, we’ll have expectations, and we’ll do everything we can to establish a winning atmosphere and consistent work ethic.”

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