ORONO – Greg Norton came into the 2007 baseball season with considerable weight on his broad shoulders.
The senior righthander from South Portland was expected to be a consistently strong mound presence and a team leader for the University of Maine.
Norton has not disappointed.
Despite missing the 2006 season after offseason surgery, Norton has returned to provide stability for a pitching staff lacking experience and depth.
“If we didn’t have Norty right now, we’d be in a little bit of trouble,” said second-year UMaine coach Steve Trimper.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has anchored the staff with a 5-3 record and a 5.24 ERA.
“This year has been kind of a struggle for me,” said Norton, who Saturday will earn a degree in civil engineering. “It hasn’t been one of my best years, but I’ve just tried to maintain focus.”
Norton goes into this weekend’s AE series at Hartford ranked among the top pitchers ever at UMaine. His 47 career starts are two fewer than Mike D’Andrea (1989-92). Norton ranks fourth in career wins with 25, two shy of D’Andrea and Bill Swift (1980-84).
Norton is fourth all-time at UMaine in innings pitched (280) and seventh in strikeouts (206).
“He’s going to go down in history as one of the better pitchers that has come through here,” Trimper said.
The soft-spoken and humble Norton puts the team first.
“He’s an outstanding human being on and off the field and is a really good role model for the younger kids,” Trimper said.
It has been a difficult climb back to prominence for Norton, who began having shoulder discomfort the winter prior to his junior (2005) season. He managed it and went 9-4 to help spark the Black Bears to the NCAA Tournament.
That summer, Norton opted to refrain from pitching and do rehabilitative therapy, but the problems persisted. In September 2005 he underwent surgery to repair tears in his rotator cuff and biceps tendon.
“Having an injury was totally new for me,” said Norton, who was a standout basketball player at South Portland. “Throwing again, building up arm strength, getting the mechanics so I don’t get hurt again – then not seeing results right off the bat – is frustrating.”
Norton had hoped to pitch last year but wasn’t ready. After throwing one inning April 1, he sought a medical redshirt.
He slowly worked his way back, pitching numerous brief relief stints in Portland’s Twilight League last summer and proved he could still perform.
“It was good to come out of the pen and it built my confidence up knowing I could throw as hard as I could again without any pain,” Norton explained.
“You’ve just got to stick with it, persevere through it.”
Norton is gradually regaining his old form. He is 3-1 this spring with a 4.50 ERA in America East games.
“He had some pressure on him to come out and have a good year,” said former teammate and catcher Aaron Izaryk, now a graduate assistant coach.
“The fact he was supposed to come back off a major surgery and be a No. 1 right away, that’s something not a lot of guys can deal with,” Izaryk said. “For him to pitch at the level he’s at now, that shows a lot of maturity on his part.”
Norton altered his mechanics to minimize the risk of injury and those changes have affected how he delivers his fastball, changeup, and slider.
“He consistently goes out there and gives it his best,” Trimper said.
Norton once had the eye of pro scouts, but the injury likely has hurt his chances. He hasn’t given up on that dream, but as he contemplates graduate school and a career in architecture, Norton has learned to concentrate on the short term.
“I’m just trying to focus on the rest of this season and getting us into the playoffs and hopefully beyond,” Norton said.