NORTH BERWICK — It’s too cold to practice outside, so Rick Melanson stands to the side of the gymnasium in Noble High School and watches his softball players toss the ball back and forth.

After about 15 seconds, he halts the drill and shows the Knights how he wants it done. How it should be done.

“It’s simple,” he says to them. “But it’s important.”

Melanson has been coaching the Knights for over two decades, most of their seasons ending in a playoff spot. In 2003, Noble won the Class A regional crown behind the late Brittany Tibbetts, an overpowering pitcher.

But when people talk about the best softball programs in the area, the school tucked in the southwest corner of York County, often gets overlooked. “Sometimes I feel that they think we’re in New Hampshire,” said Melanson. “We are near the border. But we are in Maine, we play all our games in Maine. That’s all right. We like to be unheard of, to be the underdog. It motivates the kids.”

The Knights have been in the playoffs each of the last 10 years. This year should be no different. They graduated only one starter and return several key players, including senior catcher Mackenzie Aleva, who’s earned a scholarship to NCAA Division II American International College, and sophomore Raegan Kelly, last year’s pitcher of the year in the SMAA.

“You’ve always got to keep an eye on them,” said Robbie Ferrante, the longtime coach now at Portland High. “The coaches in this league know about them. (Rick) is one of the best. They always come to play, they’re always well prepared.”

Tom Griffin, in his 29th year as Scarborough’s coach, said Melanson and his assistants, Jayson Lessard and Dave Billings, deserve a lot of the credit. Melanson and Billings, especially, have been together for nearly the entire time.

“They know how to do it the right way and they’re good people,” he said. “They treat kids the right way, they get the kids to play for them. We have a lot of respect for that coaching staff.”

Softball is one of the few girls’ sports at Noble that has had consistent success as the field hockey and basketball teams have struggled to win more than just a few games over the last several years. And part of the reason, the players believe, is Melanson and Billings.

“Both have been here for a long time,” said Aleva, a first-team SMAA selection last spring who hit .441. “And they have great chemistry. They have the experience to really push us. They expect a lot out of us and keep us preforming really hard in practice and on the field when it comes game time.

“One of the things that Coach Melanson says every day is that he wants us to be better than we were at 2:45. Practices start at 2:45 and end at 5. He definitely pushes us to get better.”

But Melanson said his players deserve more credit. Many of them work at softball year-round. Those who don’t attended a summer program at the school that involved batting practice. “They want to put the time and effort in. They love softball,” he said.

And they’re driven to get better. “Since the end of last year at Windham (an 8-7 loss in the quarterfinals), I know the girls have been thinking about this year,” said Melanson. “I have four of them (Aleva, Lauren Sanger, Samantha Morrill and Molly Griffin) in my (statistics) class. And all they would talk about is, ‘I can’t wait until spring.’ They’re excited to play. They know we have a pretty good team and that we work as hard as anyone.”

Having one of the best pitchers certainly helps. Kelly came in as a freshman and dazzled batters. She went 12-6 with an ERA of 2.12 and struck out 183 in 1252/3 innings.

Maybe her success isn’t entirely surprising. Her older sister, Amber Kelly, was an all-state pitcher her senior year and is now a senior captain at the University of Southern Maine, where she was a first-team Little East Conference selection as a junior.

Raegan Kelly, who also hit .469 last year, wanted to follow in her older sister’s footsteps. She attended Berwick Academy before coming to Noble as a freshman.

“I watched her play at Noble for four years and, looking from the outside, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of,” said Raegan Kelly.

“She was such a big role model in my life. And watching them coach and the girls working together made me want to be part of that.”

In addition to being talented, the players like being around each other. As senior first baseman Jordan Boucher said, softball practice is often the best part of the day.

“We’re like a family, we welcome everyone,” she said. “It’s just a nice play to be after a long day at school.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH