Coach Brian Dube, center, gives some pitching pointers to the pitchers on his Spruce Mountain High School team. From left, the high school athletes are Austin Gilboe, Jordy Daigle, Shane Pelletier and Logan Moffet.

LIVERMORE FALLS — As if Monday being the first official day of spring wasn’t enough to conjure up renewal and all of the other cliches about hope springs eternal, high school baseball and softball pitchers and catchers reported for the first day of practice Monday.

Practices for all spring sports start next Monday, but every year, the Maine Principals’ Association gives pitchers and catchers across the state a week’s head start to get their arms ready for the season. Teams are allowed to have as many pitchers and catchers practice as they want, but drills are limited to throwing so that the focus will be on building up arms. 

With most schools in central Maine facing weeks of melting and drying before they can leave the gym for the diamond, athletes and coaches were willing to grasp onto anything that promised better days ahead.

The better days have been at least two years in the making for teams such as Spruce Mountain baseball and Winthrop softball, which both made the playoffs during rebuilding years and finished with identical 5-12 records last year.

Two years ago, Kayleigh Oberg was wandering the halls at Winthrop trying to recruit others to join the softball team. After a junior year that saw her lead the Ramblers back to the tournament and graduate just one senior, she has so much optimism for her senior season that even a dislocated kneecap suffered during off-season indoor softball couldn’t curb her enthusiasm for the first day.

“I’m really excited,” said Oberg, who said she was close to 100 percent and will be ready to go when the Ramblers’ season starts April 21 against Dirigo. “I’m glad I’m back for pitchers and catchers. If I wasn’t, I’d be crushed. It’s a really good opportunity for us because we didn’t really stop pitchers and catchers. We’ve been playing in a dome since January.”

The Phoenix have their top three pitchers back and plenty of experience to back them up, so they hope to make their final season in the KVAC a memorable one.

“We have a pretty competitive group of seniors and it’s kicking in that it’s going to be our last chance to make a good push,” junior pitcher Jordan Daigle said. “We’ve got some experience, so this year I think we definitely have that drive.”

To the chagrin of some coaches, the MPA has recently tightened the rules on what pitchers and catchers are allowed to work on this week. But even with arm health and safety being the focus, pitchers still have plenty to work on.

“For me, it’s mechanics,” Daigle said. “I try to get my mechanics ironed out, make sure everything’s smooth. If you don’t start off with good mechanics, you’re in for a long season.”

“I’m working on my arm strength and mechanics,” senior pitcher Austin Gilboe said. “It’s a progression. You start with your wrist and then you work up so you get your whole body into it and build up that strength.”

The MPA placed an even greater emphasis on keeping pitchers healthy with the implementation of mandatory pitch counts for this season. Varsity pitchers are limited to 110 pitches in a game, with mandatory rest days to follow based on how many pitches they threw in the game.

Spruce Mountain coach Brian Dube said the new rules haven’t forced him to change what his pitchers do this week. But he may have to revise his preseason pitching plans and be on the lookout for more arms to give him more flexibility when the games count.

“I like somebody to pitch at least three innings (in preseason), but we’ll see,” Dube said. “It’s definitely going to give us something else to talk about.”

“You may have to go out in the middle of an inning to get someone if you need them two or three days or even one day later,” Dube said. “It will take a while to get used to.”

Softball isn’t bound by pitch counts, and with the less stressful underhand delivery, plus an off-season spent playing indoors, arm strength isn’t a concern during preseason. So the theme of pitchers and catchers week is to get everyone on the same page going forward. 

“It’s just getting them back into the routine and repetition,” Winthrop coach Chuck Gurney. “There are certain things they may have forgotten from last year.”

Sophomore pitcher Layne Audet hasn’t forgotten what it was like being a wide-eyed freshman one year ago, and getting to know Oberg and how different she feels with a year of varsity experience in the circle.

“This week is more getting used to getting back with my team and just more practice,” Audet said. “I definitely feel more comfortable because I know what it’s all about now. Last year, I didn’t know what to expect.”

The Ramblers expect to make some of the Mountain Valley Conference’s top contenders uncomfortable this year as one of the league’s up-and-coming teams.

“Six of our games are against the teams that finished 1-2-3 last year, Madison, Telstar and Carrabec,” Gurney said. “It’s a tough schedule, but the kids made the playoffs last year, which was a big step for them. Losing just one senior, I think they’re ready to take that next step this year.”

Jordy Daigle fires a pitch during the first day of baseball practice for the Spruce Mountain High School team.Jordy Daigle and Austin Gilboe line up for pitching practice during the first day of baseball practice for the Spruce Mountain High School team.

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