STANDISH — For the players on the Richmond baseball team, all thoughts were on the present after a promising season came to a screeching halt against Searsport last year in the Class D South final.

Even in the moments after the letdown, however, coach Ryan Gardner’s thoughts drifted to the future. And when that future arrived in the form of this preseason, his sentiments hadn’t changed much.

“When we left that field, we said ‘We have to be mentally tougher,’ ” he said. “We challenged ourselves to be mentally tougher.”

Back on Larry Mahaney Diamond at St. Joseph’s College, where Richmond had unraveled with one mental mistake after another last June, the Bobcats this time were everything their coach had in mind with that mandate. They jumped out to an early lead, cut Searsport’s attempts to rally back, then put the game out of reach with a seventh-inning eruption, dashing any frustration from two regional final losses in three years with a 14-6 statement win.

It was the kind of performance the Bobcats (17-1) always knew they could give — even after it appeared they had squandered their best chance. Richmond rolled through the regular season with a 14-2 regular season, but saw it all end for naught in the D South final as Searsport earned a 6-2 win on its way to a third straight state final last season.

The players acknowledged feeling at first that they had let “their year” go by. But by the time spring came around, the focus had shifted to making this season even better — even if regret from last year was still lingering.

“It definitely was, but we’re a completely different team now,” senior Matt Rines said. “We have a lot more fire, I think. … We set this goal at the beginning of the year, to get to the final game, like we always do.”

There was ample reason for optimism. Richmond returned the bulk of its core with Rines, fellow seniors Zach Small, Trystin Shea and Nate Kendrick and junior Danny Stewart, as well as its top two pitchers in Rines and Small.

“We knew we were going to be good,” Small said. “Our goal was to come to this game.”

There were a few holes, but Richmond found answers. Justin Vachon, Ben Gardner and Dakotah Gilpatric bloomed as reliable starters in their sophomore seasons, and Andrew Vachon became the team’s No. 2 hitter and one of its top pitchers as a freshman.

“It’s really the young guys,” Rines said. “The young guys stepped up and really were the key to our success.”

The mix worked out of the gate. Richmond scored 20 runs in its second game and won the next five games, seven of the next eight and 11 altogether by 10 runs or more.

“Right from the beginning,” Rines answered when he knew how good this team could be. “We were 10-run ruling everyone, and we were ready for some bigger competition.”

Indeed, those wins that boosted Richmond’s record also hurt its chances of going deep into the postseason. Depth is thin in the East/West Conference, and the Bobcats rarely saw the type of talent in five-inning blowouts they would need to figure out in the playoffs.

Coach Gardner, however, had a plan. Toward the end of the season, the Bobcats had their normal batting practices but also put in more time and went through more buckets of balls on the pitching machine, giving them a sense for the mid-50s and mid-60s they’d see in conference play, as well as the mid-70s they’d face in the postseason.

“We said (before the playoffs) ‘Well, we have (the machine). Let’s just eat it up this week, doing it back and forth.’ And the kids love it, they see all kinds of pitches,” he said. “We would go out and have batting practice, then we started having cage practice. We knew the pitchers were going to get better, we knew they were going to throw harder, and we needed to do those things.”

Still, there was the mental toughness component, and ironically, Coach Gardner saw the best example of it in the team’s only loss. Richmond fell to St. Dominic 3-2 in the second-to-last game of the regular season, and Gardner saw a team that, rather than try to shake off the defeat, instead resolved to not let it happen again.

“You get that sense. I really got it with the loss to St. Dom’s,” he said. “They hated it. They hated that feeling. And you could see them (thinking) ‘We need to get better.’ ”

“That game against St. Dom’s really was an eye-opener to us,” Small said. “It really opened our eyes to ‘If we want to go anywhere, we’ve really got to step up our game.’ ”

In the playoffs, they did. Small outdueled one of the region’s best pitchers in Greenville’s Evan Bjork in a 3-2 semifinal win, and the work in the cage paid off in the regional final as Richmond pounded out 15 hits and never let Searsport into the game.

“This year, we were more than prepared to hit the speed,” Small said. “Last year we came here and we weren’t really prepared for that speed, because we don’t really see that in the East/West. So we prepared, we prepared, we prepared.”

And this time, the Bobcats were the ones celebrating.

“We talk all the time, if you’re in the moment, make that moment yours,” Small said. “When you’re up to bat and it’s the fifth inning, whatever-whatever, make that moment yours. I think that’s what we’re doing. We’re accepting the roles, embracing the moment and making it count.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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