WESTBROOK – The fields may still be mostly snow covered, but new Westbrook softball coach Mel Craig is raring to get the season started.

Craig, the former softball coach and athletic director at Gray-New Gloucester High School, is returning to the bench with an eye on turning around a Westbrook program that has struggled in recent years. Last season, the Blazes missed the playoffs with a 3-12 record and Craig recently talked to the American Journal about how she was looking to reinvigorate the program and get the Blazes to the playoffs.

Q: What is your background? What did you do before you came to Westbrook?

A: I was raised and graduated high school in Rhode Island. I came to St. Joseph’s College in Standish and had the amazing opportunity to play softball for the legendary Coach Dick Bailey.

I have spent 20 years in education as a physical education teacher and an athletic director. From 2000-2010, I was at MSAD 15 in Gray-New Gloucester as a physical education teacher and athletic director and I also coached varsity softball and middle school soccer as well.

Q: What have you been doing since leaving Gray-New Gloucester?

A: I left education last June to take a sabbatical. Having spent three years as an athletic director, the impact on my family and time away from them was tremendous. I have spent the last 10 months trying to “owe back” the time they missed with me. Now with my youngest son starting kindergarten in the fall, I am excited to return to the classroom.

Q: Do you miss being an athletic director?

A: I really miss interacting with students. People that know me, know that my students mean the world to me. I miss being in a position to provide them with positive opportunities both in and outside of the classroom. I gained a new respect for athletic directors and what they do every day and more importantly, the sacrifices they make. Even when I was an assistant athletic director, I did not fully understand. It is a fantastic job that I love, but there was a real reality check with the time commitment and overall demands of the job.

Q: What attracted you to the Westbrook softball program?

A: When I took the position of athletic director at Gray-New Gloucester, I was not allowed to continue in my position as varsity softball coach. I have spent the past two years really missing being on the field with players. Coaching is my passion, so ultimately I knew I would go back to it. What attractive me to Westbrook specifically was the opportunity to rejuvenate a program. Coming from a Class B school – I am excited at the personal challenge of taking on a Class A program. Westbrook has a tremendous amount of potential. Their Little League teams have experienced success recently and they have really worked hard at implementing a strong feeder program.

My meetings with administration solidified for me their commitment to building a successful program. Through a rigorous hiring process and numerous follow up conversations, we have worked very hard to make sure that our philosophies were a good match. I am confident that we are putting the right things in place to bring success to Westbrook softball.

Q: While the spring season hasn’t started, how have you been preparing for the upcoming season?

A: I think many people may think that a varsity coach’s season begins the first day of tryouts. The great coaches I know work year round to improve their programs. I have to prepare both as an individual coach as well as develop a foundation for a whole program. To be honest, I had forgotten how much work goes into completely rebuilding a program.

The past four weeks have been incredible! I could not be more impressed with the work ethic and support of administration, staff, parents and players at all levels.

These past few weeks have included; getting a strong coaching staff in place, starting a Westbrook softball boosters group, completing an inventory assessment and upgrading our equipment and uniforms, presenting clinics for our “Future Stars” and Little League by our coaching staff, arranging the opportunity for all high school players to participate in numerous clinics with a local college coaching staff, attending professional development opportunities such as a pitching clinic as well as numerous other softball meetings, scheduling a 12-game preseason including two all-day tournaments, organizing fundraisers – including the sale of spring flowers and a chance for a family of four to win a free weekend getaway at CoCo Resort Indoor Water Park.

Our work is just beginning, but I could not be more pleased with the progress we have made in such a short amount of time. A lot of people have come to the table to get this program off and running in the right direction. Many thanks to all of them!

Q: Your previous coaching experience is in Class B, what do you know about the teams the Blazes will be facing in Class A?

A: There is some amazing softball being played throughout Maine at all levels. Moving up to the Class A level, I am fully aware that this is where some of our best softball is being played. We will be competing against programs with long histories of success due to the hard work and dedication of their coaches and their players. My coaching philosophy hasn’t changed. Every day I have to bring my best game to the field and dedicate myself to being the best softball coach I can be. I will expect nothing less from the players that wish to wear a Blue Blazes uniform. The study of our opponents is important. My goal for our first couple of seasons is to emphasize our game. We need to return to fundamentals, learn to execute the basics consistently and most importantly play with pride.

That being said, it was interesting to note that (Westbrook Athletic Director Todd) Sampson did not share the schedule with me until after I accepted the offer. Our first four games we will be jumping right in against some of the best of Class A!

Q: What are some of the challenges the Blazes will be facing this season? How do you plan to overcome them?

A: Obviously the high level of competition in our conference is one of our biggest challenges. But that is really only one element of our focus this year. Before we can focus on them, we have to focus on us. Anytime there is a change in staff, you are at a disadvantage. We need to take the time for me to get to know the players and for them to get to know me. Building that team chemistry has to come first. In fact our very first varsity practice, the team will be participating in a challenge ropes course in Saco – players shouldn’t even bother to bring their softball gloves!

My biggest goal for the program for our first season is to begin developing that team chemistry and program pride that is critical for long-term success. It is time to bring pride back to Westbrook softball and that needs to happen not just at the varsity level, but to really be effective, it is about the whole program, from Little League up through to varsity.

The foundation we lay this year, the expectations we put into place the establishment of our values for this program – that is what will define who we are and what are long-term successes will be.

Q: You talked about assembling a strong coaching staff, can you discuss the staff you have in place for this season?

A: I think we have put together a fantastic coaching staff. Taylor Damon is the varsity assistant. She was a four-year varsity softball player at Gray-New Gloucester, a three-year captain and All-Conference award winner.

The junior varsity coach is David Galipeau, he was the previous eighth-grade coach and has extensive experience coaching and building a competitive Westbrook softball Little League program. He has played in a men’s fast pitch league

The eighth-grade coach is Abby Harmon. She has a solid background in coaching at middle school level in numerous sports. She is currently a Westbrook Middle School teacher and Westbrook tri-sport athlete herself. Competed in softball Little League through varsity and ASA.

Mandy Fernald will be the seventh grade co-coach. She is also Westbrook Middle School teacher. She is a former varsity player for Cape Elizabeth and competed in softball Little League through varsity and ASA. She has strong coaching experience with middle school-level students.

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