It’s only been a few days since snow left the ground in Jackman and there’s no guarantee it won’t return before the end of April.
Nestled in the Moose River Valley just 16 miles from the Canadian border in northwestern Maine, Jackman is a winter haven for snowmobilers. In the warmer months, it attracts hunters and fishermen or tourists passing through on their way to Quebec province. Tourism is one of the leading industries in this town of 700 while the Jackman Lumber Mill and the Border Patrol Station are the two largest employers.
Athletes at Forest Hills High School in town are spread pretty thin. With an enrollment of 54 students, teams are allowed to include eighth graders on high school teams out of necessity. Basketball is the biggest game in town and this year the Tigers achieved unprecedented success, winning the Western Maine Class D championship after rallying from a 19-point deficit in the second half against top-seeded Hyde School. And last fall, the golf team won the conference championship.
Baseball is another matter. There is no middle school team and as Coach Mike LeBlanc says the youth program is “not anything to write home about.”
“When I first started they used a pitching machine to pitch to batters,” LeBlanc said.
A pitcher himself, LeBlanc changed that in a hurry. He arrived in Jackman 15 years ago after applying for a teaching job.
“I looked at the map and said ‘what the heck am I thinking of,’ ” he said.
LeBlanc grew up in Skowhegan where he still lives and makes the 75-mile commute each weekday to the school. A star at Skowhegan, he moved on to the University of Maine where he became the team’s closer. He was a member of the last UMaine team to reach the College World Series in 1986.
Jackman baseball is about as far removed from that experience as LeBlanc could get. Yet he’s had success despite some obvious drawbacks. Many of his players have little or no experience when they show up for tryouts.
“They’re first taste of it is when they’re in the eighth grade,” LeBlanc said. “They have no clue whatsoever but they play hard. I’ve never questioned their toughness.”
This year LeBlanc has three eighth graders on his team. Numbers have varied from a high of 21 players to as few as 11.
“They just play to play it,” LeBlanc said. “They have fun. I’m not too strict.”
Still, in 13 years as coach — LeBlanc took a two-year hiatus three years ago — his teams have qualified for the playoffs 10 times. They rarely get outside before the season begins. This year was an exceptional as temperatures wandered into the 70’s in mid-March. But they’ve since dipped to the freezing mark and there was snow on the ground earlier this week.
The gym provides little respite since it’s undersized at 47x74 feet and can accommodate a batting cage but no portable mound. Often the first outdoor action the Tigers see is when they travel down river to face rival Valley which is about an hour away. Travel is another issue for the Tigers who routinely face long bus rides. When they play at Vinalhaven, it involves a three-and-and-half hour bus ride a 45-minute ferry ride to the island. Because of all the travel, the Tigers play seven doubleheaders in their 16-game schedule.
They’ve had a few pitchers over the years, though. Jeff Mulhall, who plays for Thomas College in Waterville, struck out 294 batters in four years. This season, junior Evan Worster is the team’s ace. The star of the basketball tournament, Worster throws fairly hard but has plenty of finesse, according to LeBlanc.
“He has a pitcher’s mentality,” LeBlanc said. “He throws the ball inside. A lot of pitcher’s are afraid to do that.”
Junior Derek Ouellette and freshman Matt Turner have also shown promise on the mound which may make the Tigers a contender in Western Maine Class D. They open their season April 24 with a doubleheader at Valley.
“It’s pretty amazing what those athletes do up there,” LeBlanc said.
BASKETBALL LEGENDS RETIRE
Two longtime boys high school basketball coaches announced their retirement this month. Cheverus coach Bob Brown stepped down after a coaching career than spanned 52 years, 42 of those as a head coach. Also retiring is Mt. Blue coach Jim Bessey, who served as head coach of the Cougars for 37 years.
Brown won four Class A state championships, two at South Portland in 1979 and 1980 and two at Cheverus in 2008 and 2010. He also coached at Rockland, Edward Little and Bony Eagle high schools as well as serving as head coach at St. Anselm College, the University of Southern Maine and Boston University. His overall high school record is 476-154.
Bessey also coached at Madison High School and finishes his career with 479 wins. His Cougars won an Eastern Maine title in 1987 and this year lost to Hampden in the regional final 46-44. Many of Bessey’s players have gone on to coach including Gavin Kane (Dirigo and Spruce Mountain), Jeff Hart (Camden Hills) and Mike Adams (Edward Little).
BASEBALL SEASON SET
With the high school baseball season officially opening April 13, here are a few predictions.
1. Cheverus: The defending state champs return a pair of solid arms in Louis DiStaacio and Harry Rich.
2. Scarborough: The Red Storm return pitchers Ben Wessel and Joe Cronin along with shortstop Ben Greenberg.
3. Marshwood: With ace Luke Fernandez on the mound the Hawks are as strong as any team in the conference.
Others to watch: Lewiston, Erskine
1. Greely: The Rangers, who lost 1-0 to Waterville in the state game, are loaded. They’re led by pitcher Mike Leeman and catcher Pete Stauber.
2. Ellsworth: The Eagles bring back a strong pitching staff led by Thomas Sawyer and Kyle Haslam.
3. John Bapst: Pitcher Max Andrews leads a group that should content in Eastern Maine.
Others to watch: Mt. Desert, Waterville
1. St. Dom’s: The defending state champs return most of their team led by pitchers Kurt Johnson and Jim Theriault.
2. Calais: The two-time Eastern Maine champs return their entire team led by pitchers Adam Geel and Joe Mitchell.
3. Dirigo: The Cougars suffered some graduation losses but bring back an ace in Ben Holmes.
Others to watch: Bucksport, Telstar.
1. Greenville: The defending state champs return enough to repeat.
2. Woodland: Pitcher Ryan Lincoln leads a talented returning group.
3. Bangor Christian: The Crusaders remain strong in Eastern Maine.
Others to watch: Deer Isle-Stonington, Central Aroostook.