Editor’s note: This is the 13th installment of our new series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

AUGUSTA — In one dugout sat the juggernaut. Deering High School was the state’s baseball machine, winners of 49 straight games and two straight Class A championships, and looking for a third in June 2009.

In the other was Cony, the team that felt — knew — it could beat it.

“I remember hearing the week before, it was going to be 10-nothing mercy (rule),” catcher Jason Burns said. “All week, we’d been hearing we were by far the underdogs, we were going to get smoked. Nobody on our team believed that.”

With an extra bounce, an extra break, Cony might have landed the upset few saw coming. Instead, a seventh-inning rally fell just short in a 2-1 loss to Deering at the University of Maine’s Mahaney Diamond.

The loss hurt. But it came to show what the players wanted to prove: On any day, they were as good as any team in the state.

“We knew the central Maine group of players always got kind of a bad rap compared to the southern Maine guys, just in terms of how good some players were,” said shortstop Jake Lachance, who played at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts before becoming a police officer in Cumberland. “But we were excited to prove ourselves. It was a pretty storied group of guys.”

Indeed, the story of the core of that 2009 Cony team started well before that game and that season. It dated to 2003, when a selection of future Rams were on the Augusta West Little League team that finished a game away from the World Series, and continued through 2015, when players like Lachance, Burns, Charlie Partridge, Ryan Minoty, Eric Lee, Jake Beland and Mike Poulin comprised an Augusta Babe Ruth team that, after winning the state tournament at 13 and 14 years old, went to the Babe Ruth World Series as 15-year-olds.

“We would spend our whole summers together,” said Burns, who went to the University of Maine and is now a bridge engineer in Windham. “By the end of the summer, we were all really close, every year.”

“We had a ton of confidence,” added Partridge, a right fielder for Cony. “It was a confidence that built over time, and from an early age.”

Cony coach Ray Vallee, left, high fives Jake Lachance as he heads for home after hitting a home run against Messalonskee during the 2009 season at Morton Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo

By the time came to take their game to the high school level, baseball at Cony had deteriorated. The Rams were coming off of a 2006 season spent near the bottom of Class A, and interest in baseball had declined. But Cony had a new coach in Ray Vallee, a strong cast of assistant coaches in Rex Turner, Eric Lloyd and Keith Genest, and a group of players that, while young, had become proven in big games.

“We had 14 seniors try out, we only kept three of them,” Vallee said. “We went with youth. We figured if we were going to rebuild the program, we would have to start with a new set of eyes and a whole new attitude.”

It was a good decision. The youngsters could play. Cony went to the tournament in 2007, won the KVAC championship in 2008 and stormed through the Eastern Maine tournament in 2009, beating Messalonskee to head to the state final.

Along the way, the culture in the school and Augusta community changed. Baseball became a big deal at Cony. Players became household names. Games were must-see events, played in front of full stands at Morton Field.

“There were probably 1,500 to 2,000 people there (against Messalonskee),” Burns said. “Augusta was always very much behind us, and it was fun to play in front of those crowds.”

The players gave them an exciting product to watch.

“We played good baseball,” said Partridge, a University of Southern Maine graduate now working in marketing in San Diego. “We were playing collegiate level baseball, almost.”

“We were a fundamentally sound baseball team,” Vallee said. “And that started with those kids showing up six days a week.”

But in the final, the Rams had to play Deering, the team no one else in the state could beat. The Cony players, however, were ready.

“We didn’t feel like it was David vs. Goliath, really,” Partridge said. “We had every reason to feel like we were the Goliaths.”

“We had been (in championships) before, we had confidence in ourselves, we had confidence in what we could do,” said Lachance. “We kind of let everybody else do the talking and let our play on the field play out for itself.”

Vallee had a strong pitching staff of Lee, Minoty and Beland and went with Lee, a soft-tossing left-hander, to face the predominantly lefty-hitting Deering lineup. The decision appeared to backfire when Deering put two runs on the board in the first inning, but Lee settled down and kept the powerful Rams off the board the rest of the way.

“Senior, 140-pound-soaking-wet lefty, throwing frisbees up there and wiffleballs,” Vallee said. “He was our MVP that year. … He was the unsung hero.”

“He kept us in the game,” Lachance added. “With the stuff he had, he definitely threw a wrench in their offensive plans a little bit.”

In the Cony dugout, there was the sense a breakthrough was coming, even as Deering pitcher Regan Flaherty continued to put up scoreless frames.

“I’m sitting over in my dugout with my coaches, going ‘We’ve got these guys on the ropes,’ ” Vallee said.

In the bottom of the seventh, Cony jumped at its final chance. Sophomore Luke Duncklee led off with a home run, and Partridge rapped a hard single to chase Flaherty and put the tying run on base.

“I was thinking in my mind ‘We are going to tie the game,’ ” Partridge said. “As soon as Duncklee hit that ball, I thought we were going to tie the game right there, if not take the lead.”

Cony nearly did. With Partridge running on a 3-2 pitch with two outs, Corey Lapierre laced a ball down the right-field line that went foul by inches.

“To see the look in some of these eyes, in (Deering coach Mike) Coutts’s face,” Vallee said. “I’m looking at my coaches in the dugout, going ‘I can’t believe we’re in this position.’ ”

Lapierre got on, and with another full count sending both runners, the game came down to a soft fly to shallow left. If it fell, both runners would likely score to win the game for Cony, but Deering shortstop Nick Colucci made a running snag to instead seal a third straight championship.

“I was definitely pretty crushed,” Partridge said. “We were thinking … ‘We could potentially steal this here.’ ”

Cony baseball players greet Jake LaChance, center, at home after he hit a two-run homer during a 2009 game against Brunswick. Kennebec Journal file photo

There were plenty of “if onlys” to think about. If only Lapierre’s ball were fair. If only Cony had rallied earlier. If only rain hadn’t prevented the game from being played at Morton Field, as scheduled, in front of a raucous Augusta crowd.

Afterward, however, Vallee focused on what they did, not on what could have been.

“It was maybe the proudest moment in coaching for me,” he said. “To be able to see the whites of their eyes there that last half an inning in the opponent’s dugout, it was worth the price just to be in that position.”

It’s a fond memory for the players as well.

“I look back on 2009 and all the years that I played with those guys, and … we were always very competitive,” Burns said. “Do we wish sometimes we had different outcomes? Yes. But there was no group of guys we would rather go to battle with.”

 

 

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