WATERVILLE — Walking down the long hallway inside Waterville Senior High School toward Donovan Gymnasium, the sound is the first thing that stops you. Rock music is blaring from a speaker, nearly drowning out the sounds of softballs slapping into gloves or pinging off aluminum bats.

It seems nothing, not even a little rain, can dampen the collective spirit of the Purple Panthers’ softball team. For the first time in years, Waterville is on the cusp of claiming a spot in the upcoming Class B North regional tournament.

To quote a Bon Jovi song they’re practicing to, the Purple Panthers “are halfway there.”

“I like to have fun,” said first-year head coach Tom Toner. “If you’re enjoying it here, you can learn a lot in a positive way. There’s nothing wrong with music, for instance, if you can still work hard. The girls like it. They want to be here, and I think that’s the difference this year. Now they’re engaged.”

The road to the playoffs won’t be an easy one. After a close 2-0 loss to No. 3 Medomak Valley at home Wednesday, Waterville is just 2-8. By most metrics, that defeat would simply have served as another disappointing loss in a season going nowhere.

But when you consider where the Purple Panthers have come from, it’s almost as though you could start planning a victory parade now.

“I told them from Day 1 that we want to turn the page,” Toner said. “It’s time to close the last chapter, start a new one and write a new book here.”

The Purple Panthers have wins this season over Spruce Mountain — a game in which they squandered the lead late only to charge back and win — and Mount View. The victory over Mount View, a 5-inning win, was the first time a Waterville team had won via the 10-run rule “in more than 20 years,” Toner said. The two victories amount to twice the number of wins the Purple Panthers amassed in the three prior seasons combined. Entering the week, Waterville was ranked 12th in the region, just three spots out of a tournament berth.

Games still remain against Oceanside, Belfast, rival Winslow and Class B South playoff contender Maranacook. A win over any of those four teams ranked above them in the standings over their final five games would likely be enough to put the Panthers in.

For Madison Clowes, a senior pitcher who hits in the heart of the Panther lineup, this season has been a true breath of fresh air.

“It feels good for people to be talking about Waterville softball again,” Clowes said. “Or, actually, for the first time.”

Junior catcher Coby Dangler agreed.

“I feel like once he walked through the door, everything just changed,” Dangler said of Toner, Waterville’s third coach in a four-year span. “He brought in so much. From preseason to now, I thought we had a chance (at the playoffs).”

Toner’s job was not an easy one. In trying to inject life into the program, the former Thomas College baseball player and youth softball coach at the travel team level sought to teach fundamentals and bring a positive attitude.

It’s rubbing off. In half a season, Toner thinks the program’s culture has already changed.

“I think the culture now is leap years beyond where we were,” Toner said. “It’s changing, and there’s a new norm and the girls know it. I think if you talk to any player on this team, they’ll tell you it’s changed.”

So, too, will opposing teams. Nokomis coach J.D. McLellan, after his Warriors were forced to rally to break a late deadlock with Waterville, said “that Waterville team is going to surprise some people before this season is over.”

“I’m happy for (the underclassmen), that they get a new, awesome coach and a new foundation to build this program to where it should to be,” Clowes said. “We’ve all worked for it.”

That’s one important distinction that Toner makes. Without the girls embracing an atmosphere where winning is expected and hard work is required, the Purple Panthers would be…

Well, they’d be the same old Panthers.

“They want to win, and now they’ve gotten a taste of it,” Toner said. “Yes, it’s only two wins, but people have to understand that that’s half the mountain right there. They had one win in the last three years.”

To be certain, Waterville still has its work cut out for it if it is to sneak into the B North playoff field. Beyond the starting lineup, there isn’t a ton of depth on the Panthers’ roster, and the team has to eliminate costly mistakes that has cost it no fewer than three wins in the final two innings of games.

But, all that being said, there remains an expectation at Waterville that never existed before on the softball field.

“The culture before was that they never played more than five innings. Losing was normalcy. I told them that we’re done with that. You’ve got to be angry when you lose. That’s got to upset you. You can’t be OK with losing — you’ve got to be upset about it and come back and work twice as hard the next day in practice and go get it the following game. They’re there now.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

tbarrett@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC