It’s a season of transition in high school sports in central Maine this spring.

At least 26 coaches are going into their first seasons leading varsity teams this spring, being either new hires or people who were hired last season but were denied their debut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of those 26, baseball has seen the most transition with eight new coaches taking over. There are also six new softball coaches, four new tennis coaches, three apiece for boys and girls lacrosse, and two for track and field.

One of those baseball coaches is Eric Palin, who was hired to take over at Messalonskee for Ray Bernier. Palin, a physical education teacher at Waterville, is new to Maine after coaching as an assistant in New Jersey for two years.

“I’m really excited about it,” said Palin, 30. “While I was an assistant, I’d always go through ‘What would I do in this situation,’ so I’m playing those situations out in my head, and I’m really happy that this year I get to make those calls.

“I definitely want to win. I’m a competitive person by nature, and I want Messalonskee to compete at the state level.”

Palin said the Eagles will be a scrappy team on the field.

“We’re going to be aggressive,” he said. “I always believe in being aggressive on the basepaths. This is high school baseball, usually you see about two to four errors per game on either side. I’m trying to harp on putting the ball in play, not taking too many pitches … (and) really putting pressure on the defense and forcing mistakes.”

John Novak takes over at Winthrop after serving as the JV coach in 2019. He was going to start with the Ramblers last year, but this spring will instead be his first at the helm.

Maine Central Institute softball coach Woody Moore runs practice Tuesday in Pittsfield. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“I couldn’t ask for much more. All nine positions, we’re solid all the way around,” he said. “I’ve got eight pitchers, which is a blessing. Our goal is to make a deep run in the playoffs, if not further, if we’re fortunate enough. We certainly have the talent to do it, but a lot of that falls on the kids and their determination and where they want to be.”

Novak, 47, said he wants to build versatility with his team, which starts with working on discipline and knowledge of the game.

“I would like to see them be more serious about the game,” he said. “There’s a thousand moving parts to baseball, and it’s important to me that every kid can gather up as much knowledge as they can get about every position, because we’re going to be in positions this year where I’ll be moving kids from infield to outfield, or vice versa, depending on who’s on the mound.”

On the softball field, Ryan Gero, a 2002 Gardiner graduate, takes the reins after three years coaching the middle school team. He’s worked with many of his varsity players at younger ages, and coached several of them to the 12U state championship in 2018.

“I’ve got a very, very talented young group of ladies, and these kids that I have, I’ve been coaching since they started playing softball, for the most part,” Gero, 37, said. “It’s always been a passion to do this. I did my time at the youth levels, I went to the middle school hoping that one day when Don (Brochu) retired or got done that I would be able to step in and take over, and it’s all fallen into place.”

Like Palin at Messalonskee, Gero wants his team to play aggressively.

“My biggest goal in every team I’ve ever coached is defense. I want to be a shutdown defense with a lot of speed,” he said. “We’re hoping to make teams make plays against us. … We want to fly around. We’re talking, we’re communicating with each other, we’re on the go and we’re on the run.”

At Waterville, new boys tennis coach Jason Tardif also has familiarity on his side. Tardiff, 44, is the head pro at Champions Fitness Club, and as such he’s worked with many of the Purple Panthers, notably the top three singles trio of Charlie Haberstock, Owen Evans and Josiah Bloom.

It’s a year in the making. Tardif was supposed to begin with the team last season.

Gardiner softball coach Ryan Gero pitches during batting practice Tuesday in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“The kids were pretty bummed (last season),” he said. “I have fairly high expectations for our team. We should do well, and they’ll have that extra motivation to really give it their best this year. Especially the seniors.”

Tardif has over 20 years of coaching experience in Maine and New Hampshire, and said he’ll have different approaches for the more advanced and beginning players.

“I’ve got some players that are a little bit newer, so (we’ll work on) developing doubles strategy and tactics and stroke fundamentals too,” he said. “(For the others, it’s) making smart shot selection, not beating themselves out there. They’ve got all the tools to win and play well. It’s just making the right choices and working a little bit on their mental toughness.”

Meanwhile, Cony boys lacrosse coach Kyle Gleason, a 2012 Messalonskee graduate and assistant with the Eagles for three years, is jumping into a completely new team.

“I learned a lot and I tried to soak everything in from (Tom) Sheridan, he’s a great coach,” he said. “I’m fortunate enough that my JV coach, Joe Wathen … has been there for the past few years, so he knows the kids. That’s going to be really helpful, leaning on him just to know the guys a bit and earn their trust.”

Gleason, a former defender, said his team will be defensive-minded and fundamentally sound.

“I’m really about having a defense that’s all on the same page,” Gleason, 27, said. “My teams are going to communicate, and they’re all going to know exactly what their assignment is. So there’s no question on who’s sliding, things like that. There’s just going to be a lot of talking.”

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