AUGUSTA — The contest was a simple one. Players take their mark at home plate. Coaches shout for them to start. The players take off, rounding the bases back to home. Fastest time wins.

Waterford, Connecticut’s Sam Lanuza had a different idea. He lined up at the plate, started his own countdown, and called for the coaches to start the watch as he took off for first.

Watching nearby, Augusta assistant coach Bob Lippert started laughing.

“This is my favorite guy in the tournament,” he said.

The 13-15 New England Babe Ruth tournament got its unofficial start at Augusta’s Morton Field Thursday afternoon, but the seriousness of regional competition could wait. This was about fun, as a skills competition made up of running, throwing and hitting contests gave the teams a loose and relaxed way to begin what they hope is a march to a national berth in Longview, Washington.

“It’s a great opportunity to show yourself to the rest of these players, but also to just stay loose,” Augusta coach Jason Douin said. “Have fun. This is a game. That’s one of the big things we want our kids to understand. Have fun, enjoy the game.”

The competition was split into a race around the bases, a “golden arm” challenge in which players tried to hit a propped up board with a hole in it in center field from the left-field line, and a home run derby, with rewards for first place in the form of gift cards and souvenir bats.

“This is really a lot of fun for everyone,” said Augusta’s Riley Geyer, who took his cuts in the home run derby. “We were talking about it all week, we trying to figure out who would do each event. … I like it, I like doing these events. It’s just a good way to see the competition as well.”

Augusta’s Akira Warren throws during the skills contest at the New England Babe Ruth tournament on Thursday in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“You just get to see what everyone’s about and their talent level, so this is good scouting, honestly,” said Waterford’s Trey Brennan, who competed in the throwing contest. “It’s a good way to take it off, but remind yourself you’re here for baseball.”

After a summer of district and state tournaments, Thursday was a chance to lay back and cut loose. Players joked around while waiting for their turns at the events. Players from Augusta, Tri-County (Maine) and St. Johnsbury (Vermont) chatted with opponents from Waterford, North Providence-Smithfield (Rhode Island) and Concord (New Hampshire), comparing the paths their teams took to the tournament. And any pressure came from within — take poor Shane Grant and Aiden Barry of Medford, Massachusetts, who got an earful from teammates during the home run derby when their first hits failed to leave the infield.

“Here we go, that’s a single!” a Medford player joked when Barry grounded one down the first-base line.

It was a relaxed atmosphere, but it was still competition, and still a chance to show off one’s talents in front of a crowd of peers. Augusta’s Logan Dupont was all smiles when he tore around the bases in 15.17 seconds, and the smile was back when he found out his time stood as the fastest overall.

“I didn’t think I was going to come out and win. It’s cool,” said Dupont, who edged teammate Ian Stebbins. “I’ve always been fast, (but) it’s soccer fast. I’m usually pretty slow in baseball.”

Douin felt his player was selling himself short.

“I think he was a little bit of an underdog, but he’s quick,” he said. “He’s competitive, underneath a lot of that relaxed demeanor. He is a competitive, fiery guy, and I’m sure he wanted to win.”

Augusta’s Bobby Stolt throws during the skills contest at the New England Babe Ruth on Thursday in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The throwing competition came down to a tiebreaker between North Providence-Smithfield’s Matt Antunes and Waterford’s Brennan, both of whom bounced throws through the hole in the board. Brennan — a center fielder who threw flat-footed without a crowhop — hit the board with one of his two extra throws to break the tie.

“I didn’t want to overdo anything, for the sake of my arm. But I knew if I just threw it up the wind would carry it,” he said. “Luckily, it did.”

Waterford scored another winner in the home run derby, as Robert Zawicki hit the only two balls out of Morton Field. None of the right-handers had any luck with the deep left-field dimensions — though Augusta’s Geyer one-hopped a pair against the wall — but the lefty-swinging Zawicki had the stroke to take advantage of the shorter 300-foot porch in right field.

“I’m not a power hitter. I’m a lefty who turned on a few balls today,” he said. “It was a good decision by coach to put me out there. He knows I pull the ball a lot.”

Zawicki’s first home run slipped over the wall, but his second — on his final swing, no less — cleared the wall comfortably while he held the pose at the plate.

“I put a little extra into it,” he said.

Augusta’s Riley Geyer watches a pitch during the home run derby in the New England Babe Ruth skills contest on Thursday in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

As the ball cleared the wall, his Waterford teammates raced over to congratulate him, but the cheers came from all eight teams. For one afternoon, they were all on the same side.

That will change starting Friday.

“We definitely want to go all the way to Washington,” Brennan said. “We had a long way here, we might as well win it while we’re here.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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