Erskine Academy golf coach Mark Bailey knew what he had going into this season. All of the Eagles’ big guns were back — but there was still enough of a surprise awaiting in the words of their biggest, Conner Paine, when he returned from a summer of tournament play.

“He said ‘coach, I realized that I can’t just go out and play. I need to practice my game, I need to work on shots and really create my own game out of practice,’ ” Bailey said. “I just told him ‘That’s music to my ears, Conner.’ ”

The renewed focus and attention to detail paid off for Paine, who shot a 76 at Natanis Golf Course’s Arrowhead course to help Erskine qualify for the Class B state tournament, then shot a Class B-best 74 at Natanis’s harder Tomahawk course to lead the Eagles to a fourth-place finish in the championships. For his performance, Paine is the Kennebec Journal Golfer of the Year.

For the Erskine junior, intensely focused and relentless in his drive to improve his game, the season showed him the elite level to which he could rise, while also consisting of enough missed shots and lost opportunities to remind him of how much better he can yet become.

“I think I’m really looking toward next year, but this was a pretty solid year,” said Paine, who went 9-3 in matches while averaging a score of 37.8. “I think, too, that I worked harder in general. I practiced a lot more, I took it more seriously.”

Paine’s talent was evident when he helped lead Erskine to a Class B title last year, but he was in for an eye-opening experience during a summer load that included what he estimated to be 12 Maine State Golf Association tournaments and a spot in the New England Invitational. Paine saw golfers around him that were bound for college and holding scholarships, and he began to see that his game, already good, was a long way away from being great enough to reach his own goal of college golf — and that it was in need of more work, not more play.

“I got to see some of these kids that are going to be playing for the best schools in the country, and their games in so many aspects are so much more refined than mine,” he said. “That’s probably one of the big things that motivates me.”

So Paine went to work. He worked on his fitness and conditioning before the season, and spent as much time toiling on the driving range and putting greens as he did playing on the course. In the summer, he worked on his swing, making sure it was grooved by the time the season arrived. When it did, the focus shifted more to short game work, with the emphasis away from making big changes to a swing that had already been set.

“He realized what it meant to work at his game,” Bailey said. “Whereas in the past he’s just been out playing rounds and rounds of golf. It was working for him, to some extent, but I think to make that next leap, he realized he really had to focus in on certain things.”

With that attention to detail came a commitment to the short game, which meant even more time on and around the practice green.

“I think what helped me a lot this year was that the days I was playing badly, I could score well,” Paine said. “Your long game’s never going to be 100 percent on. So instead of going to the driving range and hitting drivers all day, I worked a lot harder on my wedges, worked a lot harder on my putting.”

It wasn’t just in practice. Paine never misses a chance to work on and analyze his game. His father records his swing and the two go over what they see on video. When there’s a slowdown in play, Paine picks up a club and swings while he’s waiting. When he hits a shot he doesn’t like, he makes a note to head to the green or range and practice it until he gets it right.

“I can’t imagine that there’s any grass at his house,” Bailey said. “That’s a coach’s dream, to have your best player be your hardest worker.”

For all the success, there were moments that left Paine wanting more out of the year. He struggled with the putter in the qualifier, recording six three-putts despite the impressive score. Then, after dazzling in the team championships, he struggled on the back nine of the individual championships as a 1-under score through 10 holes became an 8-over 80.

“It wasn’t like I gave up, but my swing was off,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those things where I was nervous, I just didn’t have the game that day, and I knew it.”

Nothing a little more work can’t fix.

“I’m in no place to sit back and relax,” he said. “It’s ‘go’ time if I want to get good.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM