AUGUSTA — It’s another summer, and another appearance in the New England regional tournament for the Augusta 13-15 Babe Ruth baseball team. Ask the players, however, and the third opportunity to go against the best teams from this corner of the country feels just as special as the first.

“It still feels great,” first baseman Nick Barber said. “It always feels great.”

It’s the same sentiment for coach Jason Douin.

“This is extremely special,” he said. “Hopefully these young men will look back in 10, 15 years and have fond memories of having an opportunity to represent their community, their state and play against boys from other New England states. It’s very special.”

The luster may not be gone, but the unknowns are. This is the third year in a row in the regional mix for Augusta, and while there were surprises before with facing the higher caliber of competition, the Augusta players have now turned into one of the most seasoned teams in the field.

“I think their approach is a little bit looser now than it was when they were younger,” Douin said. “I think they understand it, they recognize that it is … just a game, and being relaxed is more important than anything they can do. Because when you get that competitiveness going and you get that pressure put on yourself, it doesn’t allow you to perform at your best.”

While the story is similar this season, it is not the same. There are key differences, the biggest being that Augusta, the state champion the previous two years, lost to Tri-County in the tournament this year and is playing this time as the host team, a label that the players know comes with a stigma that wasn’t there before.

“People see that we didn’t win states, they probably think we’re not as good as we were last year,” Barber said. “We want to work a lot harder. A lot harder. It pushes us a lot more.”

It also dashes any complacency that could have been settling in, particularly with three straight appearances.

Riley Geyer (13) and Bobby Stolt celebrate after Stolt scored a second-inning run against Connecticut during a 13-15 Babe Ruth New England Regional tournament game Friday in Augusta.

“We thought that we could just go out and win without having to do anything,” pitcher and shortstop Bobby Stolt said. “And this year we know we’re going to have to play our best to beat all these teams here.”

There are also some new players in the mix, players that could help put Augusta over the top after winning one game in the 13U tournament and two in the 14U tournament last season. Cole Leclerc has become a key addition who thrived at third base during the state tournament. And Eli Bezanson has provided a steady presence behind the plate, easing the burden on some of the team’s top pitchers and fielders. Last year, Augusta relied on Akira Warren, a standout for the Hall-Dale in the spring, at catcher. With Bezanson on board, Warren can more freely pitch and play shortstop.

“When you’re catching one day and pitching another and then asked to catch the next, that’s a physically demanding position,” Douin said. “It takes a lot out of you. We’re pleased that Eli’s been able to fill that position nicely and keep our pitching staff from behind the plate.”

That pitching staff will determine just how far Augusta goes. At this point, where each opponent had to win a state tournament of its own, the difference often comes down to which teams can pound the strike zone and avoid mistakes. In the states, that wasn’t Augusta, which struggled with its command throughout the tournament. Douin’s hoping it will be this time.

“That’s the drill. Minimize the mistakes,” he said. “Everyone here’s a very good baseball team, so minimize the mistakes, know what you’re going to do before the ball’s hit to you, and execute. That’s it, right? It just comes down to execution.”

Augusta pitcher Logan Dupont throws during the Babe Ruth New England Regional tournament Friday in Augusta.

Augusta’s biggest asset, however, may be its mindset, groomed by those two previous regional berths. The players will be more ready than before to handle the tournament’s ups and downs, as well as the mistakes that, even if minimized, are still inevitable.

“We need to play as a team,” Stolt said. “We sometimes find ourselves playing for each other and not for everybody. Like if somebody’s down about what they’re doing hitting, they take it out on the team, they don’t show support for everybody else. We’re trying to do that and keep everybody up.”

That notion has already been tested. Augusta stumbled out of the gates, losing its first game to Waterford, Connecticut Friday evening 10-5. There were chances aplenty; Augusta had the bases loaded with no outs down 6-5 in the fifth and didn’t score, and then loaded them again in the sixth with one out and again couldn’t bring home the tying run. One half-inning later, Waterford scored four runs to put the game out of reach.

For a team playing its first regional tournament, or even its second, that could be a devastating loss. According to Douin, however, you don’t make it to three of these things in a row without learning how to bounce back.

“A couple of seasons, we ended up giving a couple of games away. You feel like we should have done this, we should have done that,” he said. “But you’ve just got to work toward that next goal, which is winning this tournament. … That’s one of our big things we’re working on, just looking forward to the next pitch.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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