Ellsworth junior Jackson Curtis keeps his eyes on the ball during the second day of baseball tryouts March 26 at Ellsworth High School. Curtis, who batted .393 last year and led the Eagles in base hits with 22, is one of three returning All-Penobscot Valley Conference players on this year’s Ellsworth team. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Ellsworth baseball team hoping to ride elite pitching, eager newcomers to 2019 success

ELLSWORTH — Coming off the team’s best season in nearly a quarter-century, the atmosphere surrounding the Ellsworth baseball program is as electric as ever.

A year ago, the Eagles combined a nine-member senior class full of contributors at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths with an unflappable pitching duo to capture lightning in a bottle. The result was a 17-2 season, one in which Ellsworth outscored opponents by eight runs per game, won the Penobscot Valley Conference regular season title and finished as Class B North runner-up.

“Our main goal last year was to get Ellsworth baseball back on the map, and we did that,” senior Conner Wagstaff said Tuesday at the team’s second day of tryouts, which drew approximately 30 students. “You look around this gym right now, and you can see how many people are excited about this and want to be a part of it.”

Conner Wagstaff throws a pitch during a 2018 game against Old Town at Ellsworth High School. With Wagstaff (6-0 with 65 strikeouts and a 2.24 ERA last year) and Matt Burnett (7-0 with 60 strikeouts, 11 walks and a 1.46 ERA) back on the mound, the Eagles will have one of the state’s top pitching duos this season. FILE PHOTO

This year, Ellsworth will look to build on that milestone season with a mixture of its star starting pitchers, a few dangerous threats at the plate and a group of potent newcomers. Replacing the acclaimed 2018 class won’t be easy, but if the Eagles can do it, they believe they can go a long way.

“Losing nine guys is hard, and we’re going to need some kids to step up,” senior Matt Burnett said. “At the same time, we’ve seen some kids coming through, and we’re pumped about that.”

Burnett, the reigning PVC Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year, overpowered opponents in 2018 as he went 7-0 with a 1.46 ERA, 60 strikeouts and just 11 walks in the regular season. His dominance on the mound has earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern Maine, where he will play for of the nation’s most prestigious Division III baseball programs.

Yet Burnett isn’t the only college-bound pitcher for the Eagles, who have another in Wagstaff, a 2018 All-PVC selection and Southern New Hampshire commit. As a junior last year, Wagstaff posted a 6-0 record and 2.24 ERA in the regular season and led the conference in strikeouts with 65.

At the plate, two of Ellsworth’s top hitters from last season are returning: Burnett, who posted a team-best .426 batting average a year ago, and Jackson Curtis, who earned an All-PVC honor of his own with a .393 average and team-high 22 hits. Elsewhere in the lineup, Devin Grindle and Tyler Mitchell are slated to return after making notable contributions last season.

Ellsworth will also be adding several newcomers to fill the holes left by last year’s seniors. Younger players such as Hunter Curtis and Matt Reid will be among the players looking to make the final roster, which head coach Dan Curtis said will be adding some new wrinkles.

“We didn’t play a lot of small ball last year, and we need to be prepared to do that this year,” Curtis said. “Being able to do the little things to get that run across is just going to be even more important.”

Matt Burnett takes batting practice during the second day of varsity baseball tryouts March 26 at Ellsworth High School. Burnett, the Penobscot Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year last season, also finished as the team’s top batter with an average of .426. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Fortunately for the Eagles, they might not need very many of those runs to win games. With its star pitchers in command last season, Ellsworth posted eight shutouts and held opponents to three runs or fewer in 13 of its 19 games.

“Having two great pitchers like we do is the perfect lead-in for a younger team,” Curtis said. “It that takes the pressure off those guys to not have to score seven or eight runs to win a game.”

Ellsworth will still miss players such as Sam Horne, who led the team with 19 RBIs last year, Austin Baron, who batted .396 and stole a team-high 19 bases, and Brad Smith, Jack Lee and Jared Hamilton, whose speed and hitting prowess set the tone at the top of the order. Providing talent and experience individually and depth as a unit, those players were key to the Eagles’ resurgence in recent seasons.

Despite those personnel losses, Wagstaff said the team’s goals haven’t changed. Ellsworth’s returnees now have the experience of playing for a Northern Maine championship under their belts, and although the Eagles’ defeat against Brewer in the regional final last season prevented them from going all the way, he doesn’t want this year’s team to settle for less.

“Now that we have a taste of what that title game is, we want it even more,” Wagstaff said. “We want to go back and finish the job, but it starts with taking it one game at a time.”

Ellsworth will begin its preseason slate when it hosts Oceanside at noon next Saturday, April 6. The team begins the regular season on the road against George Stevens Academy at 4:30 p.m. April 18 before getting into the meat of its Class B North schedule with home games against Foxcroft, Old Town and a road contest against John Bapst.

“In a sport like baseball, one hot pitcher can get you, and that will be a test for some of our younger guys early on,” Curtis said. “Hopefully, some of those younger guys rise up for us, and if they do, I think we’ll be pretty good.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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