Senior American Legion numbers took another dip this season. This time, though, there’s a silver lining to what’s become a familiar story.

American Legion in Maine went from 18 teams to 16 and shrank from three zones to two, which are now referred to as a North and South division. There’s help on the way, however, in the form of junior Legion, which serves as a feeder league for the senior level. And there, numbers are picking up. Five junior Legion teams were added this year, bringing the total to 21.

Players ages 13-17 are eligible to play Junior Legion, while those 13-19 can play senior Legion.

Augusta pitcher Dean Jackman delivers against Erskine during the season opener Tuesday at Morton Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

There’s been kind of a growing trend in central Maine for junior Legion,” said Ray Bernier, who coaches the Messalonskee Loons team. “I think it’s a combination of a decline in Babe Ruth and just the structure of how junior Legion operates, getting more kids playing.”

With junior Legion’s focus on player development rather than winning above all else, Bernier said younger players are more inclined to participate. That and an effort to avoid scheduling games on Babe Ruth days and basketball tournaments, which can dissuade multi-sport athletes from signing up, sparked enough interest for new teams to pop up for Waterville, Lisbon, Messalonskee, Nokomis and Skowhegan.

And as junior Legion director Rod Stevens put it, the junior level’s gain is the senior’s as well. Skowhegan senior Legion absorbed Messalonskee players, but Stevens, the Skowhegan coach, said that should change next season.

The hope is next year, with all these junior Legion teams, we’ll go back to two teams,” he said. “We’ve been notified that next year Midcoast will be bringing in a team from the Belfast area, and this is their second year of junior Legion. Those boys will be aging up, and they’re going to keep the junior program going. It’s a process.”

At the senior level, one of the teams to watch this season will be Augusta, which has high hopes in the North division with players from winning programs in Hall-Dale, Winthrop and Maranacook, as well as a Cony team that this year went from back-to-back 4-12 seasons to a playoff spot.

Augusta will also have some key players from the Babe Ruth team that made the New England tournament, including Kyle Douin, Riley Geyer, Bobby Stolt and Akira Warren.

“We should have a fair amount of success with the kids that we have,” first-year coach David Stolt said. “When you sit down and try to pencil out a roster, we’ve got 17 starters, and we pretty much have 17 All-Star starters. Whoever’s not playing would make a hell of a team on their own.”

Players like Winthrop’s Jackson Ladd, Maranacook’s Aric Belanger and Hall-Dale’s Austin Stebbins will be big bats in the lineup, and the pitching staff, anchored by Douin, Kents Hill’s Mitch Tarrio and Hall-Dale graduates Dean Jackman and Cole Lockhart, will be strong.

“We’re really deep, pitching-wise,” coach Stolt said. “We can roll seven or eight guys at you, and all of them can pitch a complete game with no problem.”

The Erskine-based South China Subway team is in its second year, and also has a new coach in Thad Barber. Formerly the Moody’s Diner Capitals, South China draws from Erskine, Gardiner, Medomak Valley and Lincoln Academy. A pair of former Eagles in pitcher and infielder Chandler Moore and catcher Boomer Jorgensen will be two of the top players, as will Nick Howard, Jack Allen, Nick Barber, Caden Turcotte and Luke Anderson from this year’s team.

Garrett Lunt and Cole Lawrence, who played for Gardiner in 2018, will play big roles as well.

“We’re going to have some good pitching and some great defense,” coach Barber said. “(We’re going to be) aggressive on the basepaths. … We should be a threat. We should be competitive.”

Stevens’s Skowhegan team, the youngest in the state a season ago, has hopes of making it into the top four in the Northern division, which would mean inclusion in the eight-team state tournament.

“The bulk of those kids have come back,” he said. “We have some new kids that are looking pretty good. It’ll come down to pitching, as usual.”

That staff will be made up mostly of pitchers from the Skowhegan varsity team, including Kyle Kruse, Colby Miller and Caleb Bridges. The team will also have a quality arm in Waterville’s Kody Vallee, as well as a new catcher in Waterville’s Dan Gaunce, who takes the place of injured Messalonskee catcher Carter Lambert.

Fans take in some sunshine and an American Legion game between Augusta and Erskine on Tuesday at Morton Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“We don’t have any real power hitters. We might have some guys that can hit the gaps, but we’ll be singles and station-to-station,” Stevens said. “I think our defense will be better this year. Our pitching, we’ll see. … Our expectation is we’d like to make the state tournament.”

Franklin, which takes players from a group of schools including Mt. Blue, Mt. Abram, Spruce Mountain and Rangeley, will be young, but coach Kyle Gunzinger is hoping players like Spruce Mountain first baseman and pitcher Logan Moffett, Mt. Abram shortstop Trevor Phelps and Rangeley pitcher Bo Beaulieu will step up.

“We essentially graduated all but one of our pitchers. … It’s kind of all on a reset at this point,” Gunzinger said. “I would say a strength and a weakness is youth. The weakness is that they’re inexperienced, and the strength of it (is) that they’re malleable. We’re going to hope to grow together and figure out where everyone goes.”

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