Thornton Academy softball coach Tony Miner hits grounders to his infielders during a practice earlier this month in Saco. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SACO — The Thornton Academy softball players were on one knee, about 20 feet apart, tossing a ball back and forth. Tony Miner, the rookie head coach of the Trojans, stood to the side watching intently.

Finally, after the ball rolled away from several players, he stopped the drill.

“This is an under-control drill,” he said. “Some of you are out of control. You’ve got to get your body under control in order to receive the ball and to throw it.”

The drill resumed, and nary a ball hit the ground again.

For the first time since 2019, a high school sports spring season, complete with championships, will be played in Maine. The 2020 spring season was among the first casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.

And in a year like this, fundamentals and little things are going to play huge roles in a team’s success. Hence, simple drills such as tossing a ball back and forth while on one knee take on added significance – even for a Thornton Academy team that could be considered among the better teams in Class A South this year.

“It’s about us executing,” said Miner, a two-time first-team NCAA Division III All-America selection as a baseball player at the University of Southern Maine. “If we do things the right way, we should be fine. I think it’s just the little stuff. We’ve got to make sure we do the little stuff well. We’ve got to be able to bunt, we’ve got to be able to know who’s covering bags.”

Like nearly every other team, the Trojans will be relatively young, with two classes of players – sophomores and freshmen – who have never experienced a varsity season. The Trojans are fortunate to have some experience back, especially senior pitcher/first baseman Abby Miner – the coach’s oldest daughter. As a Varsity Maine All-State selection in 2019, Miner went 6-0 with a save while batting .569 with eight home runs and 36 RBI.

Abby Miner, center, and Madi Vachon, right, lead the Thornton Academy softball team in a run at the start of practice. The Trojans advanced to the Class A South championship game in 2018 and 2019. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Trojans will have seven sophomores and a freshman on the varsity, and all will be expected to contribute. Sophomores Hannah Lappin (a pitcher/infielder), Jessica Dow (third base/outfield) and Izzy Miner (shortstop) will be right in the middle of things. Tony Miner knows he has to be patient. And he’s not the only coach preaching that.

“The message so far is patience,” said Wells Coach Kevin Fox, who has just one player with varsity experience back from 2019. “It’s a learning curve, for sure. Even though I’ve still got to install things and talk about how we do things, the difference this year is that, after I’m done teaching and going over things, in the past I would have at least half the team who could model what I wanted and knew what I was talking about. This year I’ve got one, that’s it.

“I have a great group of girls and there’s definitely some skill there, but it’s a combined lack of experience and now playing at a higher level. It’s little things like anchoring your foot on the bag, knowing when it’s not a force out but a tag play.”

This is truly a season of unknowns, not just within your own team but your opponents as well. This year, more than ever, it’s anybody’s guess which teams will stand out. As Thornton senior outfielder and co-captain Madi Vachon, who also started in 2019, said, “With two years (between seasons), you don’t know what you’re up against. You know what (other teams) lost, but you don’t know what they’ve gained.”

In a sport where a pitcher can dominate, those teams with a returning pitcher will have an edge. But teams are still spending countless time in practices going over fundamental drills.

Hannah Lappin, an infielder and pitcher, is one of several sophomores who will play a key role in the Trojans’ lineup this spring. None has played varsity softball before, because the 2020 season was canceled. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I understand they’re going to make mistakes, so it’s a process,” said Tony Miner. “The whole year will be a process so that  when we do get to the playoffs, we’ll know who the ones are going to be that are ready to go out and play and execute.”

Miner, who played pro baseball for two years and coached baseball at Savannah State University from 2007-08, returned to Maine in 2018 from Georgia, where he started and ran the Miner League Baseball and Softball Training Academy. He takes over a program that, under John Provost, advanced to the Class A South championship game in 2018 and 2019, and won a regional title in 2014.

“I’m here to build a program,” he said. “Not really to build it, but to keep it going, to keep it successful. Thornton’s always been one of the top teams and my goal is to keep it that way.”

Having his daughter on the team is a plus. Abby Miner will next play at the University of New England, and she’ll be relied on her to give the younger players confidence during tough moments. She’s looking forward to the challenge.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” she said. “I think I’m at the point where, mentally, I will never let that pressure get to me. If there’s a situation where I need to come up and be the person who needs to step up, I’ll do it. But I feel this is a team effort. Everyone has to step up.”

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