Baseball: Freeport triumphs in the South, falls at States

Defeated, Freeport standout Jack Davenport walks away as the Coyotes explode in celebration behind him.

Freeport began their Regional Final and their State Championship bouts – versus Cape Elizabeth and Old Town, respectively – in almost the same fashion, by grabbing an energizing lead in the top of the first.

They ended those matchups in polar-opposite ways, however: The Falcons squeaked past the Capers 3-1 to claim the Class B South Crown, but three days later, fell hugely to the Coyotes’ bats, 12-2 in five innings. 

Freeport vs. Cape Elizabeth

Falcons star Jack Davenport blasted an RBI triple in the team’s first ups in June 15’s Regional Final at St. Joe’s in Standish, bringing home Joey Burke and firing his roster-mates into such a furor they never trailed in seven innings – even against the heavily favored Capers.

“I think I’m in shock right now,” said Freeport head coach Bill Ridge after the 3-1 triumph. “It’s seemed kind of unreal all playoffs. I don’t know, maybe I should just start believing at some point.”

“It’s special for Coach Ridge,” said Cape head coach Andrew Wood. “I grew up in South Portland with him. I’m bummed the way it happened, but there’s no one out there better than him. He got those guys playing hot at the right time. I tip my cap to him.”

Davenport also helmed the mound – where he’s just as good as at the plate – for the Falcons that day, and successfully stymied the Capers’ potent offense. 

“Jack pitched lights-out, we played very strong defense behind him. That was kind of the story, right there,” said Ridge.

Thankfully, that’s not actually the story – or, not the whole of it; a few more details bear inclusion. After entering the bracketing ranked seventh at 10-6, for example, the Falcons kicked off a miraculous run: Their prelims contest looked easy enough on paper, sure – and it went their way, too, when they offed No. 10 Morse 5-1 – but then they faced easily the most difficult stretch of tournament play of any team in either the South or the North – and prevailed through it all. First, they traveled to York, where they bludgeoned the No. 2 Wildcats 7-2; then they hit the road again and slipped past No. 3 Greely 1-0 to earn the right to face off with the first-place Capers. 

“Past three years, [I’ve] been in a playoff game four times, and we haven’t won a single game,” said senior left-fielder Caiden Shea, referring to the sum total of the postseason games he’s played in as both a member of the soccer team and the baseball team. “We’ve come very close, and we’ve had expectations to have those games be successes for us, but we’ve never come up this big.”

Interestingly Freeport’s miracle tournament performance didn’t arrive entirely unheralded. Through the middle of their regular season, they built to a seven-game win-streak that, in fact, included both Greely (3-1 on May 13) and York (4-2 on May 23). Those were both home battles, however; that the bracketing dispatched them into hostile territory multiple times makes their repeat victories over the Rangers and the Wildcats all the more impressive.

“We beat good teams in that seven-game win streak, and [the boys] started believing then,” said Ridge. “So we got to the playoffs, and we got through our prelim without using Jack. And this group, when Jack’s on the mound, believes they should win. So it wasn’t totally shocking to win that second one…At that point, they just started talking about States.”

“We definitely started believing in each other,” said Shea of the mid-season streak. “More importantly, we were working together and playing for each other, versus just playing for ourselves. In the past, we’ve had really good individual athletes, but we haven’t really turned that into playing together, being a team. I’ve never been closer to any team, ever. This team, we’re all so close, such good friends. Our hitting and our fielding, we have each other’s backs, and everyone knows that.”

Still, the Falcons were hardly expected to pull out yet another upset, especially against the Capers, who had slaughtered them quite without mercy in the regular season (10-0 on May 4). So when the Falcons darted to a 1-0 lead in the first inning of the South Final, the entire town – because, what seemed like the entire town was in attendance – went crazy in the stands, then held its collective breath.

“They hammered us, last time we played them,” said Ridge of Cape Elizabeth. “[But] we came in, we knew Jack was pitching well, we were hitting all right – good enough; we were putting the ball in play, not striking out a ton. And we knew if we played good defense behind Jack, anything’s possible.”

No. 2 batter Joey Burke began it, grounding a ball towards first that Capers baseman Bryce Hewitt couldn’t handle, and thus reaching on an error. Then Davenport launched a real space shuttle of a hit into deep center, giving Burke the time he needed to round all the way to home. Davenport himself stayed at third, and though he wouldn’t score, he’d done what he’d needed to do.

“That was kind of the goal, coming into this game,” said Ridge. “They were planning on jumping on us early, I think – that’s what they did the first time we played them. Our mindset was kind of, ‘If we can get one in the top, go put a zero up in the bottom of the first, that might get them on their heels enough to get through those first three, four innings. And if we can keep that lead, who the hell knows at that point?’”

“Scoring the first run of the game, it really puts pressure on them,” said Davenport.  I think they came into this game a little overconfident, maybe. So, that first run of the game, it gave [Cape] a shout out – ‘[Freeport’s] here to play; they’re not here to lose.’ It gave us a big boost in energy.”

The Capers went down one-two-three in the bottom of the first; Davenport didn’t log any Ks in the inning, but he did lure Nate Ingalls into a 6-3 ground-out and Brendan Tinsman into a pop-up that catcher Colby Wagner snagged. Wagner then teamed up with second baseman Max Doughty to throw out Dylan Roberts on a steal attempt.

In the top of the second, Falcon Caleb Rice reached first when his grounder towards first skidded between Hewitt’s legs and into the outfield; Rice, however, soon went down, 6-4 fielder’s choice, on Shea’s follow-up contact. Cape starting pitcher Marshall Peterson – the team’s ace, and only a junior – then struck out Austin Langley and Ben Humphrey to end the ups.

Patrick MacDonald and Sean Agrodnia logged back-to-back singles in the Capers’ next at-bats, but they did so with two outs, and the team couldn’t capitalize. Likewise, Tinsman blasted a beautiful double into centerfield, just out of reach of Falcon Josh Spaulding, in the bottom of the third, but again Cape already had a pair of outs weighing against them and failed to convert.

Hits don’t faze Davenport one iota, as he made clear. Reminded of Tinsman’s huge swing, he laughed and said: “It’s a big park. Yeah, he hit that far; it doesn’t bother me at all. They get hits, everyone gets hits. Everyone gets big hits. It’s part of the game. It doesn’t hurt me one bit.”

“It’s just another game to me,” Davenport said. “I focus on pitching, and whatever happens, happens. I don’t get stressed out easy, so it’s just another game.”

In the top of the fourth, Freeport extended their lead, if only by one more. Josh Burke clubbed a bouncy gapper single into shallow left to reach first, then advanced to second on a Rice bunt. Rice’s play would’ve been a sac, but the Capers’ 5-3 throw from Agrodnia to Hewitt flew much too high, and both Burke and Rice wrung an extra 90 feet from the moment.

“You get the two-run lead with Jack, you really feel good,” said Ridge. “He’s as good as it gets in this conference, pitching, and for him to step up and hit an RBI triple in the first inning shows he’s as good as anyone hitting. We just got on his back and rode.”

Cape promptly cut that two-run lead back to one, though, scoring in the bottom of the fourth. MacDonald kicked off the push, belting a standing double to deep wide left, Shea’s stomping ground. It was one of only a few balls that managed to drop among the Falcons’ outfield, which has grown into one of the team’s numerous strongpoints.

“Those three have been getting better and better,” said Ridge of his outfield trio. “Joe [Burke], in center, is as good as it gets; he’s won us some games out there. Spaulding and Caiden – they’re awesome. Those three are remarkable.”

“This year, we started out, we had five or six outfielders, and we weren’t really sure who was going where,” said Shea. “But it’s really turned out that we’ve all worked together well. People will go in and out because of our pitching situations.”

“Communication is key,” said Shea. “The talk between us all, every single ball, we’re screaming, telling everyone where we want to be, where the ball has to go. Another big thing is, Coach, he’s been studying up the teams pretty well. He’s been pushing us over, putting us right where we need to be.”

MacDonald stole third on Agrodnia’s follow-up at-bat, and scored when his huge lead off the bag coaxed Wagner into trying, over-aggressively, to throw him out. The ball sailed high of Humphrey, the baseman, and into left, giving MacDonald the margin he needed to cross the plate. 2-1. 

Despite Wagner’s misstep, Freeport played a significantly cleaner game than did Cape, notching only two errors in seven innings to the Capers’ four. In a tight contest, a pair of errors can make a world of difference, as the Ridge well knew.

“No question,” he said. “They scored their run on kind of just a mental mistake more than anything…That ball should never have been thrown. We were at the bottom of the order, we had two strikes with Jack on the mound. Just go after the hitter in that situation. Only bad can really come of that.”

The Falcons regained their two-tally advantage in their next ups, though. Doughty drove a first-pitch single into shallow left and reached second on a Joey Burke sac bunt. The mere fact of Davenport’s presence – he was due up, next in the order – then cajoled Wood into a tactical gambit that would ultimately not work out.

Wood yanked Peterson when Davenport stepped to the plate, and put Hewitt on the mound instead. Both Davenport and Wagner, who followed him in the lineup, bat left-handed, and Hewitt is evidently Wood’s go-to man in such situations. 

But as it turns out, Davenport doesn’t even need to swing to squeeze runs from another team. Hewitt looked uncharacteristically rattled from the get-go, and threw two wild pitches that allowed Doughty to score. Davenport eventually grounded out, but again he’d done his job – even if his job was merely to step into the batter’s box and intimidate the opposition into making a mistake. 

“That’s a tough situation,” said Ridge. “That’s something we talked to [the boys] about. When that happened, we had an idea that was going to be two batters, Jack and Colby. That’s a really tough thing to do, come in, know you’re going to face two batters, know you have to do your job and come out. So we were able to take advantage of some wild pitches.”

“As I was watching him warm up, I don’t think he threw a single strike,” said Davenport of Hewitt. “So my approach, when I went up, was to take a strike and see what he can do. He just—didn’t come through for them. So it worked out really good. I was confident, even though I grounded out. It boosted our team the same.”

Ingalls recorded a single for the Capers in the bottom of the fifth, but otherwise, the Capers’ attack couldn’t find the fire they needed to mount a comeback, given the time remaining. 

“We faced Cape’s No. 1 tonight, and he pitched a great game,” said Shea. “He definitely kept us off-balance. But we ended up getting the runs we needed.”

The win was historic for Freeport. “I think it was our first Regional Final,” Ridge said, speaking not just of the current incarnation of the Falcons, of course, but of the Freeport baseball program across its entire history. “We obviously hadn’t won one yet…I think, the last time we were in a State Championship for a team sport was 1978, for boys.”

“They deserved everything,” Wood said of the Falcons. “I hope they finish it off. Not too many people get the opportunity to play on a field like this, underneath the lights with a great crowd. There was a lot of passion there. Not everybody can handle it.”

“It’s really special to be with these kids,” said Davenport. “What we’ve done here – the crowd, the fans for Freeport; it’s just awesome. They know we can do big things, and I think we know that too. It’s just amazing that what we’re doing is going our way.”

Freeport vs. Old Town

Alas, the Coyotes presented a much steeper challenge for the Falcons in June 18’s State Final than had York, Greely or Cape earlier in the tournament. Though Freeport once again jumped out to an early lead, Old Town quickly bit back, overtaking the South reps in the bottom of the first and run-ruling them in five.

Doughty walked onto base to begin the game, then reached second when Joey Burke sac bunted. Old Town starting pitcher Ethan Stoddard then intentionally walked Davenport to get to Wagner – and Wagner came through in a big way, driving an RBI single into center. 

“That was great for Colby,” said Ridge. “Guys do treat Jack a little bit differently – rightfully so; he’s one of the best players in the State, best player in the conference. Colby’s right there too, though; Colby was a Second-Team All-Conference catcher, this year, and we had a lot of good catchers in our league. So it wasn’t surprising that Colby came through for us, but it was awesome for him.”

“I’ve been in that situation a lot this year, with Jack getting walked and me coming up, and I haven’t always delivered,” said Wagner. “It feels good to.”

“It was great, jumping out,” Wagner said. “We did that in Cape, scored a run first inning, and [after that] they were back on their heels. That’s exactly what we were expecting from this team. They just came back and punched us back.”

“He was definitely hittable,” Davenport said of Stoddard. “It brought us a lot of confidence; we definitely thought we had it – we might’ve been too overconfident. It didn’t go our way.”

So Doughty reached home for 1-0. Davenport next tagged up and followed him when Josh Burke flew out to center. 

Davenport, having pitched against Cape, was ineligible to take the mound at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor, where the Falcons and the Coyotes clashed. So Josh Burke, Freeport’s No. 2, got the call instead. Despite being just a sophomore, Burke had already guided his boys through some tough brawls, including the playoffs upset of Greely. But Burke didn’t have quite his best stuff against Old Town, and the Coyotes’ roster was stacked with hitters.

The Coyotes racked up 13 hits – 12 singles and a double – against not just Burke, but Langley, who relieved him, and Spaulding, who relieved Langley, in the short outing. Burke seemed to have some of his best luck throwing significantly low and hoping to bait his opponents into swinging for the dirt, rather than aiming anywhere near their knees. 

But Burke had to edge near the middle of the zone occasionally, and when he did, Old Town absolutely savaged the ball. The team posted four runs in the bottom of the first – Drew Coulombe, Ryan Hoogterp, Stoddard and Cole Daniel all scored – and four more in the bottom of the second, when Hoogterp, Stoddard and Daniel all crossed home again, and Nick Swift did so as well. 

Two of the Coytoes’ runs actually came on double-steals, in which their man on first trotted casually off toward second, drawing the Falcons’ attention. When Freeport made their attempts to catch those men out, Old Town’s runners at third took off for home and scored in the ensuing chaos.

“That’s as strong a hitting team as we’ve seen all year,” said Ridge. “They weren’t letting us get away with mistakes today…If we made a mistake with a pitch, they didn’t let us get away with it; if we made a mistake in the field, they didn’t let us get away with it…They capitalized, today. They did an awesome job following up an error with a base hit, an error with a double.”

“But that’s part of how we got here, was taking advantage of opportunities that we had,” Ridge said. “So you can’t be made about it, you can’t be sad about it. That’s the game of baseball. That’s a heck of a team we just played today, and it doesn’t take anything away from the season, the run that we just made.”

“The nice thing about it is, you don’t have Jack, coming into today’s game, but we had three different pitchers pitch, and all three are coming back next year,” Ridge said. “So that’s a great experience for them. They came out, and especially Josh, who pitched the last two, I thought he threw great. That’s probably a few more pitches than he’s thrown in a game. Usually he’s a one-inning type guy. It was good to get three underclassmen into this game and get them that confidence and that exposure.”

The Coyotes’ pushback shocked the Falcons. “We weren’t expecting it, to say the least,” said Wagner. “They scored and…we were down, [but] two runs, that’s nothing. We were ready to keep on going, and it just didn’t go our way.”

Not even Freeport’s stalwart fielding could save them. Even if the Falcons hadn’t made a handful of costly defensive errors, Old Town’s hits were simply finding every gap, and there’s very little any team can do to counter that stroke of bad fortune.

“You can’t really do anything about it,” said Davenport. “They’re just finding the holes. Maybe we could’ve brought the outfielders in…but you can’t really tell.”

“Yeah, they were spraying it everywhere,” Ridge said. “[If the outfield] plays a little closer in, and a few of those balls we cut off in gaps for extra bases, doubles and triples. Six of one, half dozen of the other.”

The Falcons’ backs broke after two innings, but their spirits didn’t, and they continued to play full-bore baseball. They held Old Town to two in the third, and silenced them completely in the fourth. 

In the fifth, however, Stoddard and Daniel both reached base, then scored their team’s 11th and 12th runs, thus triggering the so-called “mercy rule,” on a drive into the right-center gap by Austin Sheehan. 

Davenport, at least outwardly, refused to let the loss drag him down too far. “It was really magical, just to beat all those [top-ranked] teams; we should be proud of that,” he said. “Yeah we lost the State Championship, but we still came out Champions for the South. We shouldn’t be hanging our heads. We’re second best in Class B.”

Ridge is thrilled with the ride his squad’s been on recently. “It’s been incredible,” he said. “We’ve been getting messages, emails that, they’re not even congratulations, they’re thank-yous. It’s unreal how gracious and warm the whole town has been. The team got hot and they jumped on our backs and they were with us every step of the way. This crowd has been huge since the Morse game, the first round of the playoffs.”

Ridge is especially proud of his seniors – i.e., Davenport, Shea, Rice, Humphrey and Brandon Cass.

“Those five seniors, although they were sophomores when I got here, they were kind of the base of the program, right from the start,” Ridge said. “One thing that we just spoke about, as a team, was how far those five have come, the last three years. Those are different baseball players, and they’re completely different men, than the day that I met them. They turned themselves into five leaders on the team, out on the field, and we don’t get here without any of them.”

Freeport retires till 2017 at 14-7.

Forecaster Sports Editor Michael Hoffer contributed to this story.

Defeated, Freeport standout Jack Davenport walks away as the Coyotes explode in celebration behind him.

Brandon Cass trots forward to receive his individual award after Freeport’s loss to Old Town.

Ben Humphrey trots forward to receive his individual award after Freeport’s loss to Old Town.

Freeporter Max Heathco picks up his individual award after the Falcons fell in Saturday’s Class B Final.

Joey Burke trots forward to receive his individual award after Freeport’s loss to Old Town.

The Falcons’ Max Doughty picks up his individual award after Freeport’s defeat at the Coyotes’ hands.

Freeporter Bennett Hight receives his individual award after the Falcons’ loss to Old Town.

Emotion strains Josh Spaulding’s face immediately following Freeport’s defeat vs. Old Town.

Colby Wagner, left, and Caleb Rice console one another after Freeport’s loss in the Class B State Championship bout.

Freeport second-baseman Max Doughty leans out to grab an incoming throw as an Old Town runner descends on his position.

Freeport Catcher Colby Wagner reels in a dusty pitch.

Freeport senior Ben Humprhey hurls a 5-3 ball.

The Freeport leaders, Max Doughty, left, Caleb Rice, Jack Davenport and Caiden Shea, accept their team’s Class B State Runners-up plaque on Saturday.

The Freeport Falcons debrief after their loss to Old Town in June 18’s Class B State Final.

The Falcons pose with their new hardware after upending Cape 3-1 in the B south final Wednesday, June 15.

The Falcons celebrate their win over Cape.

The Falcons meet their fans along the fence after emerging victorious from the Cape game.

Freeporter Colby Wagner dives back to first as Cape baseman Bryce Hewitt leans out to grab a throw.

Freeport third baseman Ben Humphrey rushes back to the bag as Caper Patrick MacDonald skids in safely.

Freeporter Josh Burke approaches home in the Southern B Final.

Freeporter Austin Langley fields a ball in the B South Final; teammate Max Doughty backs him up.

Freeporter Caiden Shea leads off first in the B south final vs. Cape.

Freeporter Caleb Rice hurls a ball towards first in the Falcons’ win over Cape.

Freeport ace Jack Davenport flings a pitch toward home.

Freeporters Caleb Salter, left, and Jack Sawicki, right, congratulate teammate Joey Burke after Burke scored the team’s first-inning run against Cape on June 15.

Freeporter Joey Burke races the throw home in the Falcons’ matchup with Cape.

Freeport Max Doughty descends into a slide, on his way to scoring the Falcons’ first run in Saturday’s matchup with Old Town.