Softball coach Nicole Delcourt-Austin spends hours working to instill confidence in her players and devising unique drills to work around Lisbon’s version of a national labor shortage.

“Our program in Lisbon, even when I was in high school, was really established,” Delcourt-Austin, who played softball and field hockey for the Greyhounds and graduated in 2001, said. “We really had great youth-level teams. We had a great rec program. It had kind of been this empire then fell apart when the youth program fell apart.”

Delcourt-Austin, a clinical nursing supervisor at Central Maine Medical Center, came on aboard to coach the fledging Greyhounds in 2020, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on the sports season. She also plays for two softball leagues — Lisbon Women’s Fast Pitch League , iswhich sponsored by-Coastal Performance/Advanced Mechanical, and Lewiston coed slow pitch team in the Thursday night league sponsored by Pontes Marina.

“So when I saw the position was open and my oldest daughter (Sadie Hardt) was due to be a senior and I knew that Terri Tlumac was leaving, I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity,’” she said. “Then we didn’t play. Last year was my first year (coaching), and we were still in a pandemic so things were very challenging.”

Delcourt-Austin recognized that the Greyhounds were in the midst of numbers crunch and challenges would arise due to low turnout.

“I have 13 (players on the team),” she said. “I had 12 last year. Last year’s team, all of them were first-year varsity players, including my junior. You sit down and you have to keep assessing and reassessing. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent improving their skills.

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“When we had 21 sign up (this season), I was pumped. I was like, ‘We are going to have a JV team. We are going to travel and do all these things. We are going to get more experience and time.’” 

Only 13 players stuck around for this season. Last year, the Greyhounds had only 10 players at practices. 

“So we couldn’t do a lot of skills and drills because I didn’t have the numbers,” she said.

But Delcourt-Austin and Lisbon athletic director Eric Hall do see a brighter future for the program.

“I won’t say, ‘struggling,’” Hall said. “We go through periods where our participation numbers go up and down. I think in the next two years we will see those numbers going up.

“Our middle school numbers are really high for softball, and if everyone stays involved, then the turnaround will be within two years.”

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Delcourt-Austin does have help coaching help from Carrie Green, a 2001 University of Maine graduate who pitched for the Black Bears.

“We now have a really great middle school coach (Chris Bickford),” Delcourt-Austin said. “He’s wonderful and does a really great job. He’s phenomenal. We have been working together to help Lisbon athletes improve their softball skills.”

The Greyhounds’ lack of experience also affects their analytical skills in game situations. Delcourt-Austin tells them to take a breath before throwing the ball and not get easily frustrated when they make an error. After each game, Delcourt-Austin and the players meet and review what transpired on the field.

“We talk about willpower,” she said. “You can’t teach the kids to believe in themselves. You can tell them until you are blue in the face, but you can’t teach that. You have to feel it. For them to feel it, you need the tools to do that. 

“Trying to give them the tools today has been a challenge, but, definitely, we have had a lot of success thus far. Well, there is the mental and physical game, right. If you lack the skill, you know what, be smarter then.”

NOT AN ISOLATED SHORTAGE

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Delcourt-Austin pointed out that there are wide range of reasons why high school teams across the country are facing a shortage of athletes.

“Part of it is our world and what society says is important,” she said. “You are talking about impoverished communities. They are not playing stick ball. They are trying to survive.”

Hall said numbers are down throughout high schools sports.

“It’s across the nation, and across here in the state of Maine,” Hall said. “COVID-19 has been a contributing factor to that.”

He has another explanation for decline in sports participation.

“Specialization of a sport is the reason,” he said. “The idea of playing on elite or travel or AAU teams is very appealing to those willing to invest in that endeavor, as they spend more time playing and specializing in that sport.

“However, what college coaches do look for is the student-athlete who is a well-rounded student who participates in other sports, even if they aren’t the main focal point of the offense.”

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