SACO — To reach their goals of playing in Division I, Thornton Academy seniors Alexandra Hart and Brogan Searle-Belanger had to be willing to challenge themselves to improve in the offseason on club teams.

“Playing in travel (ball), it’s a little more stressful because you know people are watching you and you’re playing for something a little bit bigger than high school,” said Searle-Belanger, a baseball player.

“You have to be able to be away from home at least a week at a time, traveling a lot, putting in the time in practice about three times a week,” said Hart, who plays basketball.

The goal was officially met Wednesday when Hart and Searle-Belanger signed letters of intent at a ceremony in the Linnell Gymnasium lobby in front of dozens of family, friends and faculty members.

Hart, a 5-foot-6 point guard noted for speed and defense, will join the Bryant University women’s basketball team.

Searle-Belanger, a 5-foot-9 pitcher/third baseman, will stay in state at the University of Maine, where he expects to play second or third base.

Wednesday was the first day for high school seniors to sign a letter of intent that commits the athlete to attending a college as a full-time student for at least one year. The institution agrees to provide athletic scholarships.

The fall signing period runs through Nov. 15 and is for all sports except football, soccer and men’s water polo. A spring signing period begins April 11.

Football and soccer athletes have a separate signing period that begins Feb. 7.

Hart, a three-year starter at Thornton, was a first-team all-SMAA pick as a junior and is a two-time league all-defensive pick. She’ll join a program that appears on the rise. Bryant, located in Smithfield, Rhode Island, went 18-14 last season and reached the Northeast Conference championship game for the first time in program history.

“My first time on the Bryant campus I really fell in love with it and felt a connection that I hadn’t felt at any other school,” Hart said.

Hart has played for the Maine Firecrackers – a high-level club team that routinely travels out of state – since the fourth grade. Hart said she felt a strong tournament showing this past spring in Atlanta prompted Bryant to offer a scholarship.

“I played my best basketball there. I was really stepping out of my comfort zone and playing well,” Hart said.

Hart’s uncle, Don Briggs, who founded the Firecrackers with Brian Clement in 2005, was her club coach.

Hart’s speed (state outdoor track champ as a freshman in the 200 and 400 meters) and athleticism made her attractive to college recruiters.”

Searle-Belanger, the SMAA’s first-team third baseman as a sophomore and second-team choice last season, spent the summer playing travel ball with the Southern Maine River Rats.

“This (summer) it was more of a showcase kind of team,” Searle-Belanger said. “It gets you to tournaments where college coaches are there so it gets you more exposure.”

After one tournament, Searle-Belanger received an invitation to attend a baseball camp at Maine. An offer to join the Black Bears soon followed.

“I’ve always wanted to play Division I baseball. It’s been a dream of mine,” he said, “and to play representing my home state is a pretty special experience so I decided to go to UMaine.”

Three of Hart’s Firecracker teammates will be playing in the Division II Northeast-10 Conference, including Scarborough senior forward Sophie Glidden, who signed her letter Wednesday to play for Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts.

“In fifth grade I had the opportunity to play for the Firecrackers. I didn’t realize at that point how important it would be for me to join that program,” Glidden said.

Cheverus senior Emme Poulin (Assumption) and Eva Mazur of South Portland (St. Anselm) are expected to officially commit to Northeast-10 programs.

All-SMAA outfielder Kolby Lambert, formerly of Bonny Eagle and now at Thornton Academy, is expected to sign with Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, one of the top Division II baseball programs in the Northeast.

Christian Glover, the 2017 Maine Sunday Telegram boys’ lacrosse player of the year now attending Phillips Exeter Academy, is expected to sign with Merrimack, the national Division II runner-up last season.

His likely roommate at Merrimack will be Falmouth senior Brendan Hickey, who signed his letter of intent Wednesday at Falmouth High.

“I went to a bunch of showcases and that’s actually where (Merrimack’s coaches) first saw me,” Hickey said. “The tournaments definitely help.”

Falmouth senior Griffin Conley took a different path to his Division I sport. A diver, Conley signed to compete at Providence College. Conley began diving as a freshman. Most of his training comes during the season, in workouts at Cape Elizabeth and Bates College that are attended by divers from four high schools.

“I don’t do any meets in the summer but I will get on the board occasionally,” Conley said. “I used to play hockey and when I got to high school, I stopped and went over to diving. I had a trampoline but that was about it.”

The Maine Lightning, a club baseball team, have five players signing letters of intent, headlined by former York High pitcher Trevor Labonte. Now at Bridgton Academy, Labonte will be signing with Maryland. Other Lightning players who have or will soon sign with Division II schools are Titus Kaewthong of Oceanside (American International College), Jack Lynch of Cheverus (Merrimack), Ben Nelson of Gorham (Merrimack) and Justin Coppeta of Westbrook (Assumption).

Also, Scarborough senior Chloe Griffin will sign Thursday to play softball at Southern New Hampshire University.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig