BANGOR — One year to the day of a gut-wrenching defeat, the Ellsworth baseball team earned redemption in a manner fit for champions.
It happened in the same title game; it happened on the same field; it happened with the same starting pitcher on the mound; it even happened as the Eagles brought the same record and tournament seed into a matchup against one of the state’s top teams and premier athletic programs.
Whatever the case, Ellsworth has finally put June 12, 2018, behind it. Now, on June 12, 2019, the Eagles are one win away from adding the most glorious prize in Maine high school baseball to their school’s trophy-laden hallways.
Ellsworth defeated Hermon 9-5 on Wednesday to win the Class B North championship at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. The win exorcised the demons from last year’s Northern Maine title game, in which the Eagles saw their championship dreams fall short against Brewer.
“That’s gone now,” Ellsworth senior Matt Burnett said. “We can put it in the past. … We’ve worked our butts off to get back here, and to finally have it happen, we’re all just so excited.”
No. 2 Hermon got off to an excellent start to the game when it followed a first-pitch double against Ellsworth starter Conner Wagstaff with a walk and a wild pitch. The Hawks (17-2) then used a pair of passed balls and an infield single to take a 2-0 lead and put top-ranked Ellsworth in an early hole.
The Eagles responded quickly, though, as Tyler Mitchell and Devin Grindle reached base to put runners on first and second with no outs. Then, just as Hermon had done a half-inning earlier, Ellsworth combined a series of passed balls with one single (from Hunter Curtis) and then another (from Wagstaff) to score twice. Curtis then came in for the inning’s final run to give the Eagles the lead.
After Hermon tied the game at 3 in the third inning, the Eagles regained the lead on an RBI triple from Wagstaff before extending it to 5-3 on a single from Nate Smith. Hermon cut Ellsworth’s lead back to one run in the top of the fourth, but Wagstaff delivered a big hit once again when he singled in Devin Grindle and Jackson Curtis in the bottom half to put the Eagles up 7-4.
“I knew I wasn’t getting it done to the point I wanted on the mound, so I had to do something with my bat,” Wagstaff said. “That could’ve been a lot worse on my part if I didn’t step up and get it done.”
Ellsworth stretched its lead to 9-4 in the fifth before Wagstaff had to depart with one out in the sixth as he reached the 110-pitch limit. In stepped Burnett, and although Hermon scored on an RBI single two batters after his entrance, the Penobscot Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year was spotless the rest of the way to clinch the Eagles’ first regional championship since 1992.
Wagstaff, who was the losing pitcher in last year’s Class B North title game showdown against Brewer, earned the win this time with seven strikeouts. Ellsworth finished with 10 hits at the plate and no errors in the field.
“The guys had my back behind me,” Wagstaff said of his teammates’ error-free performance. “They just kept making plays. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Had the game been played Tuesday as originally scheduled, Ellsworth would not have been able to bring in Burnett to pitch the final 1 2/3 innings. Yet with rain pushing the game back a day, Burnett, who threw 85 pitches Saturday against Medomak Valley, had the three days of rest required under Maine Principals’ Association rules.
“Matt being able to go in was definitely a sigh of relief,” Wagstaff said. “He threw his first pitch for a strike on a splitter, and I knew he was in the zone. It worked out perfectly.”
The loss in last year’s Northern Maine final denied Burnett of a chance to pitch in a state title game. Because the senior easily stayed under the 65-pitch limit for throwing again on two days’ rest, though, he will get that opportunity when Ellsworth faces Class B South No. 3 seed Freeport (16-3) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
After the post-game celebrations concluded on the field, Smith reminded his teammates of a promise he made to Burnett a year ago. Immediately after that season-ending loss to Brewer, Smith and the rest of the returning Eagles had their sights set on making it right in 2019.
“A year ago, I told Matt, ‘Hey, we we’re going to get one next year,’” Smith said. That loss was a feeling no one in the Ellsworth baseball program had forgotten, but on Wednesday, the Eagles cleared their biggest hurdle yet on the way to fulfilling Smith’s promise.
As the Eagles prepared to head back to Ellsworth, where they would be greeted with a motorcade, no one was prouder than Dan Curtis. The head coach stressed that his team’s mission wasn’t done, but if the Eagles can find a way to secure another win Saturday evening in Standish, they’ll have an even more joyous journey home.
“Enjoy this bus ride back, but we’ve got one more [Saturday],” Curtis told his team. “We’re going to put it together then, too.”