MIDDLEBURY — With strong pitching and more than half his roster — nine of 16 — back from a team that made a 2011 run to the Vermont American Legion playoffs, Addison County Legion baseball coach Mike Estey felt positive heading into this season’s opener.
That game will be played on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., a non-league contest vs. Bellows Falls on AC’s home field, the Middlebury College diamond.
Estey is hopeful AC will claim one of the top four spots in Vermont’s Northern Division, which would mean his team’s season still be going when this year’s playoffs convene at Castleton State College in late July and early August.
“I think we’ll be all right,” said Estey, whose 2011 team finished 9-5 in the Northern Division and 11-8 overall. “Obviously, our main goal is to finish in the top four and play in Castleton.”
As always, AC will field a team of players who have been battled-tested in Vermont’s toughest high school league, the Metro Conference.
Six of the veterans attended or graduated from Vergennes: 2011 alum Dylan Bresnick, a third baseman; just-graduated shortstop Collin Curler; and four rising seniors: pitcher/first baseman/outfielder Devin Hayes, second baseman Nick Richer, pitcher/catcher/first baseman/outfielder Charlie Stapleford, and catcher/first baseman Wade Steele. The latter five just helped VUHS win the Division II title.
Two veterans are Mount Abraham alumni: Pitcher/third baseman Mark Dickerson graduated in 2011, and Tommy Nelson, the 2011 Addison Independent Player of the Year, just graduated. Nelson has been the Eagles’ mound ace, top third baseman and No. 3 hitter for the past two seasons; he could also play first this summer, Estey said.
The final returner just graduated from Middlebury, Marshall Hastings. Hastings is a three-year starter at second base there, but played mostly outfield for AC in 2011 and might do so again, Estey said.
Also turning out were a number of 2011 Mount Abraham varsity players, one former Eagle standout, one Eagle JV player looking to hone his game, and one recent MUHS graduate.
The four current Eagle varsity players are three recent graduates, first baseman Ian Campbell, catcher Nick Ouellette and second baseman/outfielder Ian Shaw; and rising junior Sawyer Kamman, the Eagles’ No. 2 pitcher and an infielder. Estey said Ouellette and Campbell could also see action in the outfield, and that Shaw, who started at second base in 2011 and in center field in 2012, might start in center or left field.
The former varsity player is 2011 graduate Ethan Heffernan, an outfielder and pitcher for Mount Abe’s 2010 D-II title team. The probable future Eagle varsity player is Austin Lafayette, a third baseman and outfielder for the Eagle JV.
The final team member and newcomer is Casey Covey, the senior catcher for this year’s MUHS squad.
Those players will give AC plenty of depth, talent and competition for playing time, said Estey, who will make sure everybody gets some, if not equal, playing time, and try to use early games to sort things out.
“We’re going to throw some guys in non-league games,” Estey said. “We’ve loaded early in our schedule with non-league games.”
He will have fewer decisions to make on the mound. Nelson, Hayes and Stapleford have established themselves as aces. In the playoffs this spring, for example, Nelson tossed a complete-game two-hitter, Stapleford won twice and allowed one earned run in 13 innings, and Hayes won twice and allowed two earned runs in 14 innings.
Kamman also emerged as a solid No. 2 this spring and allowed no earned runs at VUHS in a tough playoff loss, while Dickerson worked hard this winter in an effort to earn a spot on the Middlebury College team. Curler also pitched effectively in spots for VUHS over the past two years, and Heffernan gives AC seven experienced hurlers.
Estey also notes that Curler is an outstanding defensive shortstop, while all his second basemen and catchers have good gloves, making AC solid up the middle to go with the deep mound staff.
“I think our pluses could be our pitching and defense,” he said.
A couple years back, AC featured a number of home run threats, but Estey said although this year’s team has good hitters, he expects the group to play the sort of small ball that led to success for VUHS and Mount Abe.
“We’re going to bunt more. We’re going to hit-and-run. We’re going to do the little things and manufacture some runs,” Estey said. “We’ve lost the guys who used to hit the bombs, but we’re pretty quick. We’ll steal some bases. We’ll play hard and we’ll be competitive. Everybody is excited.”
Former Eagle standout Greg Lutton has committed to spending time assisting the program, and Estey said he and assistant Jim Lutton would also get more help from former Eagles Chad and Jordan Estey than in the past. That assistance will help AC make its offensive approach more effective and do the little things right, the coach said.
“We’re going to work more individual stuff ... the little stuff, bunting a lot more in practice, working on ground balls, working on pickoffs,” Estey said. “We’ll be able to spend more time with individuals, and it will be helpful to us.”
Lastly, Estey said, he saw signs at the team’s first practice that AC might have the leadership it needs to succeed.
“The guys who are coming back, I thanked them. They came in here the other night and worked hard and set the example,” he said. “If everybody follows them we’ll be pretty good.”