Lewiston High School baseball coach Darren Hartley sends a message to his batter while coaching third base during a game last year. (2018 Sun Journal file photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — Darren Hartley returned to the coaching ranks last spring as Lewiston’s varsity baseball coach, leading the Blue Devils to what many considered a successful season with a 13-5 record and a semifinal loss to eventual Class A state champions Bangor.

To Hartley, that season was good, but not good enough.

“One of the lessons that I took from baseball, a lot of people felt like we had an incredible baseball season, but I knew on the ride home from Bangor that we let an opportunity slip away,” he said. “We felt like we could have won the whole thing, but I don’t know if I had the kids believing totally that our time was right now.”

Hartley believes Lewiston football’s time is now, too, and is taking over the program to prove it.

Hartley, 54, has been hired as Lewiston’s varsity football coach for a second time, returning to a job he held two decades ago. He replaces Bruce Nicholas, who was fired in December after four seasons.

Hartley will also remain the varsity baseball coach.

He said he intends to demand more from the players, coaches and the program as a whole and return Lewiston to the top of Class A.

“I think, somehow, and I don’t know why or how, but I’ve talked about this a lot to anybody who would listen, I think the expectations somehow have been diminished,” Hartley said. “The expectations of Lewiston football are extremely high. There’s no wiggle room in regards to expectations from one of the greatest high school football programs historically in the state of Maine.”

Since 1950, Lewiston has won or shared nine state titles, the last in 1987. It has not been back to the state championship game since.

“My job will be to immediately put expectations to the highest priority I possibly can, and make sure the kids understand that we will take a back seat to no one,” Hartley said.

Hartley was an assistant coach to Skip Capone at Lewiston when he succeeded him as the Blue Devils’ head coach in 1997. Lewiston went 1-7 in each of his three seasons there.

He returned to the sidelines on the other side of the Androscoggin River seven years later, when he was hired as Edward Little’s varsity football coach. In four years with the Red Eddies, he compiled a 13-19 record. Their best season was 2008, when he led them to a 9-2 record, including playoff wins over Messalonskee and Lewiston before losing to Skowhegan, 20-0, in the Class A East championship game at a muddy Walton Field.

He stepped down at the end of the 2009 season, saying that after 21 years in coaching, it was time to focus more on his family and watch his son Grant and daughter Sofia grow up.

Sofia is now a freshman at Edward Little, while Grant, an all-conference quarterback and baseball player at Edward Little, graduated last spring and is enrolled as a freshman at the University of Maine as a preferred walk-on for the football team.

Football was never very far from Darren Hartley’s mind over the next nine years, even when he returned to coaching last spring by taking the Lewiston baseball job, where he coached against his son and the Eddies a couple of times.

“A lot of folks have known for a long time that… I’ve wanted to return to the gridiron, for sure,” Hartley said. “I miss it very much, and have almost since the time I left.”

Lewiston has finished below .500 every season this decade except for 2011, when it was 5-4. The Blue Devils have reached the regional semifinals once, in 2017, when they received a first round bye for finishing second in Class A North. They lost to Portland in the semifinals and finished 4-5.

Lewiston last reached the regional final in 2010, when Bill County was the coach.

Last season, the Blue Devils were 2-7 and lost in the regional quarterfinals to Edward Little, 18-13.

Despite its recent history, Hartley said Lewiston can compete for a state title immediately.

“I intend to instill into the football program that we are not waiting for tomorrow. We’re not waiting for 2022 when we’ve got three or four years under our belts. We are, right now, going to contend. That’s the job. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “That’s what we’ll try to do this summer in preparation to make sure that on opening night, people will recognize that Lewiston football is immediately back on the football map.”

“This is sort of my last chapter as a high school coach,” he added, “and I hope over the next decade or so we can put both (football and baseball) programs into a place that will create a legacy at Lewiston.”

Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller said Hartley’s knowledge and zeal for the game and the program made him the best choice for the job.

“We’re excited to have him back,” Fuller said. “He’s a person who brings a lot of experience to the game of football. He’s going to bring great energy and I know he’s very enthusiastic and ready to get started.”

Hartley said he has already talked to some players through the baseball program’s offseason conditioning program and expects to meet with more football players soon so he can get the weight program in place. He’s also talked to potential assistants and will start hiring his coaching staff “so we can really impact the offseason training program and grab ahold of that instead of waiting until May,” he said. He plans to draw from the remaining Lewiston staff, his old EL coaching staff and others for his assistants.

Hartley’s last stint at Lewiston included the football team’s move from Lewiston Athletic Park to what was then a brand new Don Roux Field at Franklin Pasture for home games and practices. Last year, the school opened a new athletic complex, including the new Don Roux Field, an artificial turf field that, along with the school’s weight room and fitness facility, Hartley believes gives the Blue Devils a competitive advantage.

“The facilities that we have now at Lewiston are incredible, second to none,” Hartley said. “It’s a great opportunity for me and for my staff and for the kids to recognize how lucky we are to use that facility, not just the external facilities that we see outside the school but the facilities inside the high school.”

Edward Little football coach Darren Hartley reacts after his team scored in overtime during a 2009 football game against Oxford Hills. (2009 Sun Journal file photo by Russ Dillingham) Sun Journal File Photo by Russ Dillingham

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