SIDNEY — This is the fourth straight year in which Michael Hamlin has played in a state baseball tournament. But the Fairfield Cal Ripken 12U pitcher and shortstop said there’s something different about this tournament.

It feels like there’s more pressure,” he said. “This is our fourth year in states, and as we’ve gotten older you can tell it’s getting more difficult. The pressure is building, it’s way more difficult than what it was in 9U and 10U.”

He’s not the only player taking part in the eight-team 12U state tournament to feel that way. When kids get into baseball at the tee ball and youth ages, the emphasis is on having fun, participation and learning the game. By the time they’re in high school, the focus is on winning and competing for playing time.

Right in the middle of that evolution are the 12Us, who are still children playing in a youth league while at the same time turning their focus to the more serious and demanding levels that are to come.

“(The) 9U (level) is more just fun and games,” Farmington’s Trent Beaudoin said. “Now it’s ‘We need to win and see how far we can go.’ ”

It’s clear just watching the games at the tournament that the transition to the next level is beginning to take place. Most of them are 12 years old, yet some don’t look a day over 10, and some look like high school freshmen. Some have the same softer throws from the years before, and some have unlocked a brand-new zip to their throws. Some still take the more tentative swings of a child, and some take the harder, more authoritative cuts of a teenager.

In that way, it makes sense that this is the last year before Babe Ruth and middle school baseball. The game’s about to change, with a move to 90-foot basepaths and 60-foot, 6-inch pitching distances, and the players are stepping up in an effort to meet it.

“We really focus on development at this point,” said John Beaudoin, Trent’s father and the Farmington coach. “We really like to see structure, discipline and making better decisions at this point and working their way to getting to the bigger diamond. We’re definitely working on fundamentals.”

While the coaches stress preparation for a more intense game, they’re teaching players who are starting to take the game more seriously. At the younger levels, baseball is an activity, and the commitment to the sport starts and ends with the evening’s practice or game. But at the 12U level, while some players keep up that approach to the game, others become dedicated to it. Coaches see players on multiple teams, in travel leagues, or going to clinics in the offseason.

“We have a couple of players that have played in middle school also, and they’ve played some travel games on the 90-foot basepaths,” Messalonskee coach Ray Bernier Sr. said. “Parents want their kids to get a little bit more experience in baseball, a little more baseball time, which the kids will follow and enjoy it. … They try to do as much as they can, wherever they can.”

Hamlin, who began playing this year for the Central Maine Rebels, said kids at this age are starting to show an active interest in improving at the sport.

There are some kids who are trying to take their game to the next level with the extra practice and the extra games, trying to get better,” he said. “They’re focusing more, they’re taking it way more seriously.”

As players take the sport more seriously, they do the same with the games and the tournaments — particularly with a chance for a state championship on the line.

“You’ve got your normal season games and you’re kind of leading up to playoffs and championships, and that’s when the tension gets high,” Trent Beaudoin said. “When I was younger and we were playing 9U, I was a 7-year-old, and I was really competitive. I really wanted to win, but I never kept a grudge if we lost. I wanted to win, but it wasn’t (as) big a deal as it is now.”

Players put more demands and expectations on themselves, and some have trouble handling it.

“You can definitely see it,” Hamlin said. “They’re nervous up at the plate, they’re trying to crush the ball.”

You get a lot more heart and soul dedicated to here at this level,” coach Beaudoin said. “You see some anxiety. But after the first inning, they play like (it’s) any other ballgame. I think once you get through that first inning and things are set for what they are, kids fall right in and they buy into the format.”


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