Thornton Academy’s baseball players have quickly figured out that first-year coach Jason Lariviere knows what he is talking about.

Some had worked with Lariviere in his Southern Maine River Rats club program. They all saw the attention to detail, and the early morning practices loaded with conditioning sent the message that talent alone does not make a winning team.

But few know just how close Lariviere, 44, came to living every ballplayer’s dream of wearing a big league uniform.

“I had no prior knowledge of his own playing days,” said Luke Chessie, a junior shortstop. What mattered to Chessie was that Lariviere had coached Thornton senior Brogan Searle-Belanger on the River Rats team and “Brogan got recruited by Maine, so I know that he knows how to develop players into college athletes.”

“He played (in the minors),” said senior pitcher/outfielder Kolby Lambert, who has known Lariviere for more than 10 years.

If they took the time to Google their coach and find his professional stats, they’d probably ask the same question Lariviere has heard many times before.

Why did you quit? Especially after having your best season in Triple-A?

Nearly 20 years later, it’s easier for Jason Lariviere to talk about why he walked away from baseball when it appeared he was on the cusp of making the majors.

He had spent most of his first 26 years “obsessed” with getting better.

And it had worked.

He’d gone from an undersized three-sport star at Biddeford High to a two-time Division III baseball All-American at the University of Southern Maine.

“He was a good athlete. He worked hard at it and his work ethic was good, no more or different than most of the guys on the team,” said longtime USM coach Ed Flaherty. “What he was was a fast-twitch athlete, and that made him a little bit different, and he was a three-sport athlete, a star athlete, and I think that helped him.”

Drafted in the 44th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995, Lariviere turned his $1,000 signing bonus “and a plane ticket to Florida,” into a steady five-year rise through the organization.

In 1999, his first season at Triple-A Memphis, he hit .286 with 35 doubles, 90 runs, 18 steals and 18 outfield assists. Twenty-eight future or former major leaguers played for the Redbirds that season, including J.D. Drew. Lariviere was named the team’s defensive player of the year.

Then it was over. Lariviere never played another pro game.

He hurt his shoulder in the final game of the 1999 season. Winter ball in Venezuela went badly. Lariviere wonders whether filing for workers’ compensation because of his injury was one reason why he didn’t get a nonroster invitation to the Cardinals’ major league camp in 2000. After the first round of cuts, Lariviere realized he wouldn’t even have a starting job in Triple-A. Instead of moving up, he was being pushed backward. When he asked for his release so he could sign with another organization, the Cardinals refused.

So Lariviere retired. A life spent being identified – by himself and others – as an athlete was over.

“And there’s only so many times you want to tell people what happened,” Lariviere said. “I did (stay away from baseball). It was two parts. I was kind of sour about how it ended, and I didn’t want to be identified by that anymore.”

Married and a new father, Lariviere declined an offer from the Minnesota Twins to attend spring training in 2001. A small per diem with no guaranteed contract wasn’t worth the risk.

“It was time to do the safe thing and finish school and just start my life, and unfortunately that happens a lot in baseball. Those decisions are made all the time,” Lariviere said.

He threw himself into his work for an insurance company and rose a different ladder into a management position. He and his wife, Danielle, settled in Buxton, where they’ve raised their three children, Noah, 17, Chloe, 13, and Drew, 11.

It wasn’t until his eldest son started playing a bit of travel ball, around 2013, that Lariviere was mentally ready to return to the diamond.

In 2014, he and a business partner formed the River Rats. It has grown from eight teams to 24 for baseball and softball. In 2016, he opened an indoor batting facility in Saco, called Hitters Count.

When the Thornton Academy job opened after former coach Greg Paradis returned for a one-year stint in 2017, Lariviere was ready for a new challenge.

“I’ve been coaching for awhile and it was time to take my career to the high school ranks and see how it goes,” Lariviere said. “In high school, there’s a lot more on the games. It’s competitive. The games mean a lot. It’s just a different feeling. I could feel it from the first day I started. I like it.”

“I think he’ll figure it out. He’s a sharp kid,” Flaherty said. “He’s been around a lot of baseball and worked with kids. That’s what it’s all about, working with kids. He’ll be able to handle the game part of it and the practice part of it.”

Veteran coaches in the SMAA have not been shy about putting a target on the rookie coach. With talented returners, pitching depth and two key transfers, the Golden Trojans are the consensus preseason favorites.

“We have the pieces to be a good team, but you have to make sure they gel and that individual goals are put aside and you’re pulling for the team,” Lariviere said.

He’s had his team arriving for 6 a.m. hitting sessions and working them through a heavy dose of conditioning, including running the Hill Stadium bleachers.

So far, his best players are buying the new program.

“We always practice early because he knows no one else is doing it,” Searle-Belanger said.

“He’s always positive. He wants the best for you, so he’ll make you work,” Lambert said.

Lariviere said there’s one lesson he hopes his players take from his own career: That hard work can take you a long way.

“The cards were stacked against me. The only thing that got me where I was was my work ethic,” Lariviere said. “I didn’t have half the talent of some of these kids I see now. I look back at what I did, I was obsessed with trying to be the best I could be.”

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

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Twitter: SteveCCraig