When Erskine baseball coach Mark Bailey stepped down after a promising 2015 season to spend more time with his family, the school turned to the man who had preceded him in the dugout, Lars Jonassen, in hopes he would continue the program’s growth.

The typically self-deprecating 64-year-old, who had coached the varsity for nine years in his previous stint and had stayed close to the program as JV coach in the first year of his two-year varsity hiatus, wasn’t sure he was the right fit.

“I’m at an age where you wonder if it’s the right choice and how the kids are going to react to someone my age,” he said. “But we had 13 players and, for most of them, baseball is their first sport.”

Jonassen and his players had some fun with the age difference and sharing their passion for the game they love all season. It carried over onto the diamond, as they finished 14-4 and reached the Class B North semifinals.

For the Eagles’ accomplishments, Lars Jonassen is the 2016 Kennebec Journal Baseball Coach of the Year.

Despite losing star shortstop Ryan Rodrigue to graduation, the Eagles went into the 2016 season with a great deal of optimism. Led by seniors Caleb Barden, Cody Beaudoin, Zack Glidden, Luke Peabody and Jake Suga, they had most of the nucleus back that showed consistent improvement and reached the playoffs in 2015.

Adding to the air of possibilities was that many of the players were part of the Eagles’ unexpected run to the state soccer championship game.

“We had a lot of things fall into place, but I think the attitude from day one was ‘Hey, this could be special,'” Jonassen said.

Erskine boasted a deep lineup sparked by all-KVAC leadoff hitter Peabody and Dylan Presby, who filled the vacancy left by Rodrigue at short. Barden, Cody Taylor and Noah Bonsant added pop to the middle of the order. All-conference catcher Nick Turcotte anchored the defense, neutralizing opponents’ running games.

The Eagles really hit their stride when Jonassen made a bold decision. Pitching depth was one of his team’s strengths, with four capable starters — Peabody, Presby, Glidden and Nate Howard. Early in the season, Jonassen decided to pull Glidden from the rotation and use him in a closer’s role.

“I just felt we had three kids (Howard, Presby and Bonsant) who could give us three or four innings and Zack was a mature kid with a great breaking pitch and control who could thrive in that role,” he said.

“I liked it,” Glidden said. “I had total confidence in our pitching staff. Everybody, even our young guys, pitched very well this year. I knew that when I came in, if we weren’t ahead, we would never be in a big hole. And if we were down, we were going to fight to come back.”

With Glidden pitching the final two or three innings, the Eagles knew they owned the late innings of every game. Jonassen made sure they carried that determination with them early in games and in practice, too.

“He had confidence in us,” Glidden said. “We knew we were a good team and he would try to get the best out of all of us.”

Jonassen presided over the emergence of juniors such as Howard, Taylor, Turcotte, Presby and Andrew Browne. Taylor was a particular source of pride, having started the season as a role player before growing into one of the Eagles’ top hitters.

“He started out as my 10th player, maybe 11th, and he ended up hitting third,” Jonassen said.

A late-season 5-4 win over Oceanside in which the Eagles scored three runs while down to their last out epitomized the team’s resilience. It also helped them clinch the fourth seed in the B North playoffs, as well as tie Winslow for the best record in KVAC Class B.

They met Oceanside again in the regional quarterfinals and followed their patented formula — timely hitting, strong defense and three innings of scoreless relief by Glidden — to a 4-3 win.

Erskine’s season ended with a 3-1 loss to top seed and eventual state champion Old Town in the semifinals. It marked the end of the high school careers of five key contributors. But with their entire infield and three of their top four pitchers back, the Eagles could be even better next year.

Jonassen downplays his role in the steps they took in 2016, deflecting credit to assistants Scott Corey, Pete Howard and Jon Jorgensen. But he has no regrets about getting back in the game.

“I had several pieces fall into place, and the camaraderie factor on this team was huge, too,” he said.

He added: “It was a great way to get back into coaching.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33