The Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B division added a few new teams this season, with Lawrence and Brewer moving down from Class A. That raises the number of teams in Class B North to 21, which should lead to a lot of competition for playoff spots. The new regional alignment allows for old rivals Lawrence, Waterville, Winslow and Gardiner to rekindle competition.

“I think this is good for baseball in central Maine,” Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier said.

Nokomis returns the core of a team that won 14 games last season. That regular season success did not translate to the playoffs, however, as the Warriors were upset in the regional quarterfinals. New head coach Scott Hartsgrove, an assistant coach at Nokomis last year, said the mental approach to big games is a point of emphasis for the Warriors.

Seniors Josh Perry, Zach Hartsgrove and Josh Smestad are four-year starters. Hartsgrove is a three-time all-conference selection behind the plate, and hit.461 while throwing out 11 would-be base stealers last season. Perry returns as one of the top pitchers in the KVAC. Smestad returns at shortstop. Junior Brock Graves is a key member of the outfield. A trio of sophomores — Andy Hopkins, Josh Grozik and Grady Berry — could become contributors to the Warriors lineup. A question mark going into the season is first base, Coach Hartsgrove said.

“We’re really trying to fit roles for everybody right now,” coach Hartsgrove said.

They’ll face a challenge from another strong Erskine Academy team. The Eagles lost the ace and top hitters from last year’s B North finalist team, but return ample firepower to stay near the top of the playoff race. If Noah Bonsant, sidelined until at least late April with a knee injury suffered during basketball season, can return and find his form, he’ll anchor a rotation along with Chandler Moore and Nick Howard that should still be the Eagles’ strength.

“We should be in the hunt,” coach Lars Jonassen said. “I feel like we have the talent to make a run, I really do. But it’s a cautiously optimistic thing.”

Erskine is excellent defensively as well, particularly at shortstop with Moore, catcher with Boomer Jorgensen and center field with Sage Hapgood-Belanger, but the lineup will have the most holes to fill. Jorgensen (.560 on-base percentage last year) and Gardiner transfer Joe Clark project well, but after the first few spots Jonassen is looking for bats to emerge.

“My worry is we need to put runs on the board,” he said. “I think the key for us is we’ve got to put five to six runs on the board each game.”

Lawrence looks poised for success in its first season in a new league. The Bulldogs return three pitchers with significant varsity experience to the rotation, and have a few big bats back in the lineup.

“We have some new players, but we have some experience, too,” Mercier said.

Seniors Braden Ballard and Jared Dodge, along with junior Nick Robertson, look to be Lawrence’s top pitchers. Senior Josh Dow also will see time on the mound. Those four, along with junior outfielder Nick Grard, will be keys to a lineup that will rely on speed to be aggressive.

After three seasons as head coach at Gardiner, Russell Beckwith moves on to Waterville. Beckwith inherits a team that won 13 games last season, and returns one of the conference’s top pitchers, Cody Pellerin. David Barre and Kody Vallee also will be keys on the mound for the Purple Panthers.

“I think our pitching is probably our strong point,” Beckwith said. “I don’t think we’ll have to rely on one arm to get us through the year.”

Beckwith said the lineup could be bolstered in a few weeks by the return of third baseman/pitcher Cam Denis from injury.

Beckwith’s old team goes forward with Charlie Lawrence at the helm, and he’s confident the team will be competitive after last year’s 11-6 record and trip to the B North playoffs.

“We’re very athletic. I think our speed on the bases is going to be one of our positive attributes this year,” Lawrence said. “I like where we’re at already. I like where our mindset is.”

Gardiner will be led by a senior core of Kolton Brochu, Logan Porter, Alic Shorey and Cole Lawrence. Porter, Shorey and Lawrence are the top three pitchers, while Brochu is the dependable backstop. The four will also form the heart of the order.

“We don’t have many power hitters, but we have a lineup of guys that are going to be solid contact hitters and hitting for average,” Coach Lawrence said.

Now in Class C, Maranacook will need to find offense to return to 2016’s heights, which saw the Black Bears go 11-7.

“Offensively, we struggled last year and we lost some of our top hitters as seniors,” coach Eric Brown said. “We have guys that are really going to need to step up this year.”

One thing Maranacook won’t need to find is an ace. KVAC first-team All-Star Dan Garand fits the bill as a hard-throwing, innings-eating righthander.

“He’s our big guy that we’re going to lean on this year, a lot,” Brown said.

After years as one of the top programs in the region, Winslow took a step back in 2017 with a rare winless season. The Black Raiders rebuilding process continues this season, with first baseman Andrew Bolduc the lone returning senior. Steady improvement will be the focus for coach Aaron Wolfe. Juniors Cam Winslow, Ethan Lachance and Isaac Targett will lead the way on the mound for Winslow.

Mount View suffered tragedy in the offseason when junior Riley Boulay was killed in a car accident. Boulay’s teammates are sill mourning his loss, and will look to play the 2018 season in his memory.

“In addition to what Riley offered in the way of skills, we will miss more than that his constant smile, positive attitude, teaching and ability to lighten the mood in the worst situations,” coach Dale Hustus said.

Seniors Max Tomlin and Garrett Butler, along with junior Logan Curtis, will be key players for the Mustangs.

At Maine Central Institute, the Huskies are young, but have a strong leader in senior Pedro Matos. A four-year starter, Matos will be the team’s ace as well as play shortstop and center field. Juniors Hayden Caldwell (second base) and Seth Bussell (catcher) also will be captains.

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