ORONO – It had been nine frustrating years since the University of Maine baseball team played for a conference championship.
Saturday afternoon, the 2002 Black Bears worked the kind of Mahaney Diamond magic that made Swift, Sweeney and D’Andrea household sports names in Maine during the 1980s and early ’90s.
Demonstrating tremendous heart and resilience, top-seeded UMaine completed a historic and improbable comeback out of the losers’ bracket, beating No. 3 Northeastern twice to win the America East championship.
Coach Paul Kostacopoulos’ UMaine team forced a tourney final with an 8-2 victory in the opener, then held on for a 7-5 title game win that propels the Bears into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993.
The Bears (40-15) earned an automatic berth and find out which of the 16 four-team Regionals they’ll attend and who their first-round opponent will be during today’s 12:30 p.m. NCAA selection show on ESPN2-TV.
UMaine, which got thumped 16-4 by Stony Brook in Thursday’s opener, became the first team in America East history to lose its opener and rebound to win the four straight games necessary to claim the championship.
“When you get this perfect day and everything happens the way it’s supposed to, it’s a special thing,” Kostacopoulos said. “There’s no better feeling than being in the locker room jumping around and hugging each other. Finally, this team and this program, which has been through a drought, knows that feeling.”
An energized crowd of 717 turned out Saturday to watch freshman Canadian righthanders Paul Bruder and Scott Robinson keep the Bears in the title hunt.
Bruder (4-1) pitched a five-hit masterpiece in the first game, establishing career highs by going nine innings and notching 11 strikeouts. Robinson (4-1), who worked a shaky inning Thursday and pitched two hitless innings in Friday’s late game, allowed only two runs and six hits in six innings in Saturday’s championship game.
“Are you kidding me? No one in this world, even us, expected them to pitch the way they did and that’s incredible,” said UMaine’s Joe Drapeau. “That’s what you need, you need people to step up in the key moments.”
Their teammates backed them with clutch hits and outstanding defense. The Bears’ confidence surged as the day progressed.
“I’ve been waiting for this, a chance to play in a regional, for four years,” said Mike Ross, the Bears’ only senior. “We just had to believe. Losing that first game was tough, but we just believe in each other. We took one game at a time, just battled through it.”
UMaine’s Brett Ouellette was voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, the first Bear accorded that honor since Gabe Duross in 1993. The junior second baseman went 8-for-21 (.381) in the tourney, lining a key two-run home run in the first inning of Saturday’s opener, then stroking a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning of the second game. He played superb defense throughout.
“We just came out fired up knowing we had to win two today,” Ouellette said. “We knew if we came back and did what we’ve been doing all year, we’d be fine.”
Joining Ouellette on the All-Tournament team were teammates Drapeau (3B), outfielders Mike Livulpi and Ross, DH Aaron Izaryk and Bruder. Other honorees were C Luke Carlin, SS Omar Pena, pitcher Devin Monds and 1B Colin Gaynor of Northeastern and Stony Brook OF Dwayne Whitaker.
Northeastern, which was 0-6 this season against UMaine, wound up 29-22.
In the title game, sophomore Mike Collar made a rare relief appearance and caught Gaynor on a called third strike with the potential tying runs on base in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the title.
Collar, who on his first pitch was touched for Nick Graves’ RBI single to make it 7-5, relished the chance to contribute after his subpar start in Thursday’s opening game.
“Everyone was clapping and getting excited and so was I,” admitted Collar. “Striking out that guy was fantastic.”
With Game 1 under their belts, the Bears sent Robinson to the hill. He surrendered Pena’s first-inning homer, then worked out of jams in the third, fifth and sixth innings before being lifted in favor of Ryan Harris after giving up a run in the seventh.
“When the adrenaline got going, the nerves were out, the little bit of the stiffness in the arm was out, it was so much fun out there,” said Robinson, who featured his curve and changeup. “When your teammates are there for you every step of the way, it makes everything easier.”
UMaine regained the lead in the third on Ouellette’s two-out single to right-center, then scored four in the fourth on Drapeau’s home run to left-center, a fielding error, Livulpi’s RBI single and a run-producing fielder’s choice by Aaron Young.
Mike Ferriggi added a sacrifice fly in the seventh.
The Huskies cut the deficit to 7-2 in the seventh on Brad Czarnowski’s RBI double that chased Robinson, then rallied in the ninth.
Czarnowski struck out but reached on a wild pitch, Pena singled and Carlin loaded the bases with a bunt single. Miguel Paquette delivered a run with a fielder’s choice grounder and Erik Hagstrom hit a sacrifice fly, before Harris walked Jeff Heriot to reload the bases.
Collar came on to end it.
Livulpi’s double and single paced UMaine, which scratched out six hits.
In the opener, the Bears seized the momentum in the bottom of the first when Ouellette and Drapeau hit consecutive two-run home runs off NU starter Ken Henry.
“We just jumped on them,” said Drapeau, who also singled twice in the first game. “If you jump out early, you start getting in the other people’s heads, you can do some things. That’s what we did.”
That proved all the runs necessary for Bruder.
“I think today’s key really was two-run homer, two-run homer,” Kostacopoulos said. “Then we’re up 4-0 and [we're thinking] ‘oh baby, we’ve got a chance.’ ”
Bruder, a crafty rookie, who joined the program in January, featured his overhand curve, a good change and spotted his fastball while keeping the Huskies guessing.
It was his first start since an April 21 outing at Vermont during which he injured his ankle and pitched only one inning.
“This is the biggest game of my life,” said Bruder, whose inning of relief work Thursday was his first game appearance on the Mahaney mound. “It was nerves and excitement and everything but, overall, just indescribable.”
The Bears made it 7-0 in the third on an RBI single by Izaryk, Ross’ run-scoring double and a throwing error.
Northeastern scratched out single runs in the fourth and fifth, including Pena’s solo homer, but Bruder retired 14 of the last 16 men he faced.
“Bruder was just tremendous,” said Kostacopoulos, who credited assistant coach Scott Friedholm with exceptional pitch selection and handling of the pitchers.
Izaryk stroked two other singles and had a second RBI and Ouellette added a single to go with his homer, while Alain Picard and Livulpi each doubled and singled in the 14-hit attack.
Paquette and Graves each had two singles to pace Northeastern.
BLACK BEARS 7, HUSKIES 5
(Saturday’s Championship Game)
Maine (40-15) Northeastern (29-22)
Player AB R H BI Player AB R H BI
Young, rf 5 0 1 1 Czarnowski, rf 4 1 1
Ouellette, 2b 4 0 1 2 Pena, ss 2 1
Picard, c 5 0 0 0 Carlin, c 5 0 0
Drapeau, 3b 5 2 1 1 Paquette, dh 5 0 1
Izaryk, dh 4 1 0 0 a-Garcia 0 1 0
Ross, lf 2 1 0 0 Hagstrom, 2b 4 0 1
Carlton, 1b 3 2 1 0 Heriot, cf 4 0 0
Ferriggi, ss 1 0 0 1 Graves, 3b 5 0 1
Livulpi, cf 4 1 2 1 b-Beck 0 0 0 0
Gaynor, 1b 5 0 0 0
Steinberg, lf 3 1 1 0
Totals 33 7 6 6 Totals 37 5 10 5
a-ran for Paquette in the ninth; b-ran for Graves in the ninth
Maine 002 400 100 ? 7
Northeastern 100 000 103 ? 5
E?Ferriggi 2 (12); Pena (19), Heriot (4), Graves (15); LOB?Maine 8; Northeastern 12; 2B?Livulpi; Czarnowski; HR?Drapeau (11); Pena (2); DP?Livulpi-Picard; Hagstrom-Pena-Gaynor; S?Ferriggi; Czarnowski; SF?Ferriggi; Hagstrom
Maine IP H R ER BB SO
Robinson (W,4-1) 6* 6 2 2 3 4
Harris 2 2/3 3 3 0 2 1
Collar (S,1) 1/3 1 0 0 0 1
Northeastern IP H R ER BB SO
Cavallaro (L,2-3) 3# 3 5 5 3 4
Piryk 3 1/3 2 2 0 2 1
Hedrick 2 2/3 1 0 0 0 3
*-faced two batters in the seventh; #-faced three batters in the fourth
HBP?Ouellette, Ferriggi by Piryk; WP?Harris 2; Cavallaro; T?2:45; ATT?717
BLACK BEARS 8, HUSKIES 2
(Saturday’s First Game)
Player AB R H BI Player AB R H BI
Czarnowski, rf 4 0 0 0 Young, rf 4 0
Pena, ss 4 1 1 1 Ouellette, 2b 5 2 2
Carlin, c 4 0 0 0 Picard, c 5 2 0
Paquette, dh 4 0 2 0 Drapeau, 3b 5 1 2
Heriot, cf 4 0 0 0 Izaryk, dh 4 1 2
Hagstrom, 2b 3 1 0 0 Ross, lf 4 1 1
Gaynor, 1b 2 0 0 0 Carlton, 1b 4 0 0
Graves, 3b 3 0 2 1 Ferriggi, ss 3 0 0
Steinberg, lf 3 0 0 0 Livulpi, cf 4 0
Totals 31 2 5 2 Totals 38 8 14 7
Northeastern 000 110 000 ? 2
Maine 403 100 00x ? 8
E?Pena (18); Ross (3); LOB?Northeastern 4; Maine 10; 2B?Picard, Ross, Livulpi; HR?Pena (1); Ouellette (3), Drapeau (10); DP?Hagstrom-Pena-Gaynor; Carlton-Ferriggi-Bruder
Northeastern IP H R ER BB SO
Henry (L,5-6) 3 2/3 10 8 7 1 2
Pileski 4 1/3 4 0 0 3 4
Maine IP H R ER BB SO
Bruder (W,4-1) 9 5 2 2 2 11
WP?Henry 2, Pileski; T?2:05