Plan paying off for Bannister

Darcy MacRae
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Pitcher earns baseball scholarship from Maine

Pitcher Matt Bannister throws from the mound during a pre-season workout with the St. Johns Senior Baseball Leagues Shamrocks Tuesday at Wishingwell Park. Bannister will pitch for the University of Maine Black Bears in the fall after accepting a scholarsh

Two years ago, Matt Bannister left for British Columbia with a plan. Born and raised in St. Johns, Bannister went to Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops to play baseball in hopes his performance would catch the attention of U.S. college scouts. After two successful seasons in B.C., Bannisters efforts have been rewarded with a scholarship offer from the University of Maine, a three-year deal worth at least $35,000.

I was kind of shocked when they actually put down the scholarship amount and said, We want you really bad and are going to give you this much money to come play baseball for us, said Bannister, a pitcher. I felt like all the hard work paid off ... To sit down with the head coach (Steve Trimper) and have him offer you a scholarship is a great feeling.

Bannister, 20, helped Thompson Rivers University win the Canadian Collegiate Baseball Conference title this year, posting a 3.14 ERA and striking out 56 batters in 65 innings of work (a team high). In the national championship game, he gave up just two hits over eight innings, leaving Maine scouts so impressed that he was immediately invited to take a tour of the school.

Bannister visited Maines Orono campus last week and almost immediately after arriving, was offered a scholarship. He met his future teammates and got a look at the teams clubhouse.

The facilities are unbelievable, Bannister said. It was a rainy day so they practiced on an indoor practice field. Theyve got a big club house and theyre laying an artificial (FieldTurf) surface on the baseball field this summer.

Bannister brings an impressive baseball resume to Maine. A 6-foot-6, 200-pound right hander with an 89 mile-per-hour fastball, he also has a nice split-finger fastball to go along with a solid curve and change.

The last couple of years hes increased his velocity and hes added some pitches, said Sean Gulliver, Bannisters coach with Shamrocks of the St. Johns senior league and St. Johns Caps. Hes got four good pitches.

Bannister is not quite sure what his role will be with Maine next season. However, considering Maine is known as a club loaded with big hitters, but short on pitching, it looks like hell be given every opportunity to start.

They told me theyre looking for two starting pitchers and they figure Ill be one of them, Bannister said. Theyve told me I can be an impact player right away, so Im ready for it.

Division one NCAA baseball is higher than any level of ball Bannister has ever played, so Maine gave him a workout program that should get him physically ready to make the jump. They want him working with weights and doing pool exercises and they practically insisted he pitch as often as he can in the St. Johns Senior Baseball League.

Theyd like to see a lot of innings out of me this summer, said Bannister. They want me to stay in shape and keep improving.

Bannister will be a member of the Shamrocks starting rotation and is expected to play a big role with the senior and junior Caps all-star teams. But one place he wont pitch is the new intermediate league, despite the fact most players his age will play there.

I dont think pitching at the intermediate level will do him much good. Hell just dominate down there, Gulliver said.

Pitching for a division one team opens up a lot of doors for Bannister, particularly when it comes to the possibility of a pro career. Hes already been scouted by the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers, although he is not eligible for the MLB draft until June, 2008.

I used to get nervous when Id see a few radar guns at a game. But now I just feed off that and take advantage of it. I see it as an opportunity, Bannister said.

Bannister is the third Newfoundlander to earn an athletic scholarship to Maine in the past year. Ted Purcell of St. Johns played for the schools hockey team last season before recently signing with the Los Angeles Kings, while Bonavistas Andrew Sweetland will join the Maine hockey team this fall.

They must like the Newfies, Bannister said with a laugh. Ill go in there and be right ready for the cold weather.

Bannisters scholarship covers 85 per cent of his school expenses, but the deal is expected to improve to 100 percent by his second season or possibly by the time he arrives in Orono this September. When not playing baseball, Bannister will work toward a degree in kinesiology.

While not as well known as the schools hockey squad, Maines baseball team did win the 2005 and 2006 America East conference championships and has produced several quality Major Leaguers, including shortstop Mike Bordick, outfielder Mark Sweeney and pitcher Bill Swift.

Organizations: U.S. college, Thompson Rivers University, University of Maine FieldTurf NCAA Johns Senior Baseball League San Diego Padres Milwaukee Brewers Los Angeles Kings

Geographic location: Maines, British Columbia, Kamloops Orono America East

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