This week’s podcast guest joined us from Orono, Maine: fifth-year head coach of the Maine Black Bears, Nick Derba.
Derba has the Black Bears on an upward trajectory toward contending for an America East Conference title. Last year, Maine opened the America East playoffs with a win over top-seeded Stony Brook before eventually falling in the conference semifinals. Three of his players — Nick Sinacola, Sean Lawlor and Alex McKenney — signed pro contracts after the season.
Unlike some other D1 coaches, Derba does not view the NCAA Transfer Portal as a problem with college athletics. In fact, he embraces it.
When Maine plays its Feb. 18 opener at LSU, Brett Erwin is a definite candidate to take the ball. The righty was an All-Big West Honorable Mention reliever as a freshman at UC Davis before spending three years starting on Fridays.
The transfer group includes an in-state native in former Maryland righty Trevor LaBonte (York, Maine), who was a stellar reliever for the NECBL’s Sanford Mainers over the summer. From the left side, 6-foot-6 Andrew Shaw will be a key piece after transferring from Division 2 Eckerd, where he posted a team-leading 4-0 record and 0.84 ERA in 32 ⅓ innings during the shortened 2020 season.
“The Transfer Portal is another recruiting tool,” Derba said. “I don’t see it being like a free agent market. I’m sure I’ll be talking about it differently during a year when my best player wants to leave. But it helps us in cases where maybe we didn’t get a high school player because he chose to go somewhere else. One of the things I always say to kids, you have to want to be here. You have to want to come to Maine.”
For many recruits, wanting to come to Maine means accepting that the start of the baseball season will be played in cold temperatures. Derba is quick to note that winter weather is a challenge for all Northeast schools.
“If you’re not south of Virginia, there’s still a chance of snow on opening weekend,” Derba said. “No matter where you’re playing, it’s going to be cold. The weather might break earlier in other place. If you’re a recruit and you ask me how we deal with the weather, this school’s probably not for you. If you want to play professionally, you have to remember it’s cold in New York during October. I think our best recruiting tool is our current players.”
With winter break approaching, Derba touched on his philosophy toward motivating players to maintain their fitness and focus before returning for the second semester.
“I ask each of our players,’ Do you want me to treat you like a man, or do you want me to treat you like a boy?'” Derba said. “They all say they want to be treated like a man. The work that will make us an America East championship team will not be at practice; it will be the stuff you do when no one is looking. If I have to hold your hand, you don’t belong here, you don’t belong at the Division 1 level, and you probably don’t belong at any level of college baseball. You need to be self-motivated, and if you’re not OK with that, I don’t want you to be here, and you probably won’t play.”
Another key story of Maine’s 2021 season was the emergence of a young but extremely talented infield. Despite learning new positions, three players — shortstop Jake Marquez, second baseman Quinn McDaniel (Eliot, Maine) and third baseman Connor Goodman — earned starting roles as freshmen. Marquez and McDaniel were true first-year players.
Goodman and McDaniel both hit above .265, though the latter enjoyed the most explosive season in the batter’s box as he became a staple at the top of the lineup, posting 16 extra-base hits (nine doubles, one triple, six home runs) to go along with his .268 average, 20 RBI and 28 runs scored.
Derba is looking for more players like Goodman and McDaniel who can handle the bat.
“Strikeouts are not allowed at the University of Maine,” Derba said. “As a hitter, if you’re going to strike out, you better work an 8-, 9- or 10-pitch at-bat or hit 20 home runs. I tell our hitters, no one ever struck out with zero or one strike. A lot of times, it happens because they take two strikes. We work on swing mechanics and swing plane to make sure they’re putting the ball in play.”
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