WATERVILLE — When Ray Bernier became the new baseball coach at Thomas College last summer, he didn’t travel far to fill out his staff.

Three central Maine high school baseball coaches — Rusty Mercier (Lawrence), Robb Dippner (Mt. Blue), Russell Beckwith (Waterville) joined Bernier at Thomas this spring.

“I had a plan when I got hired, I wanted to poach them a little bit,” Bernier said. “They all have different strengths, which is why I chose them specifically, because we have a lot of great coaches in the area.

All the the Thomas baseball coaches have deep ties to the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference.

Mercier — who has been the head coach of three Maine high school programs dating to 2000 — served as Lawrence head coach from 2011-2023. While Mercier will only coach at Thomas this spring, Beckwith and Dippner will pull double duty as they continue to lead their respective programs.

Dippner is in his third season at Mt. Blue, while Beckwith enters his seventh season with the Purple Panthers. Beckwith is 71-57 at Waterville.

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“There’s a good mix of guys, a lot of KVAC Coach of Year (awards) there,” Bernier continued. “It’s been a pretty good balance.”

The Terriers are 4-9 in their first 13 games, but have won four of their last six games. They’ve also struggled to find some consistency, as some snowstorms resulted in a few postponements. Thomas is scheduled to begin North Atlantic Conference play this weekend, weather permitting, when it hosts Vermont State University Lyndon.

Bernier, who was an assistant at Thomas for five years under Greg King before taking over the program, previously coached at Messalonskee. He was a pitching coach for the Eagles from 2010-2014 before taking over the program as head coach from 2016-2019. During that same time, Bernier also led Messalonskee’s senior and junior Legion programs.

The group of coaches knows each other well. Beckwith, 39, played for Mercier in the early 2000s at Noble High School in North Berwick. After a stop at Boston University, Beckwith transferred to Thomas College, where he played baseball under King and was also member of the men’s soccer team.

Thomas College assistant baseball coaches Russell Beckwith, left, and Rusty Mercier hit balls to infielders prior to the start of an April 2 game against Colby College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“For me, it was an opportunity to get my feet wet in the collegiate game,” Beckwith said. “But then having a group of coaches that you’re very familiar with (is huge). Obviously, I have a 20-plus year history with Rusty. I’m familiar with Ray coaching against him, with him. It’s very comfortable… Everybody is headed in the same direction in wanting to see the program succeed. We’ve got a group that is willing to be around for some time; we’re all comfortable in the region we’re at.”

Coaching part time at two schools while working a full-time job is no easy feat; Beckwith is a production coordinator with James and Whitney Company in Chelsea.

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“For me, personally, I have a very young family, too,” said Beckwith, who lives in West Gardiner with his wife, Amber, and three children. “It’s the allowance of having seven days of baseball and the potential of having seven days of baseball a week in my life that I think I’m most grateful for, and Ray being very understanding during the spring that I have to set my priority with the Waterville group. … Just having that flexibility to assist and bring what I can to the program is great. I’m one of those light-hearted, jovial coaches. Adding that piece to the puzzle, I think, is helpful to the program.”

“Russ is more of a player’s (coach),” Bernier said. “He’s the one that’s not around as much, because he’s still doing the Waterville stuff. But when he’s here, he’s friendly and kind of joking with the guys. He’s the friendly coach, whereas I’m more structured at the top.”

Mercier, who began his high school head coaching career at Noble in 2000, spent one season as the head coach at Winslow (2010) before taking over the Lawrence program. In 21 seasons as a head coach, Mercier has led his teams to 186 victories and 14 playoff appearances. The senior assistant on the staff, Mercier works with the outfielders and serves as the third base coach. To Bernier, Mercier is a bench coach, helping to keep him even-keeled during games.

Thomas College assistant baseball coach Russell Beckwith, right, mingles with the team prior to the start of an April 2 game against Colby College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“Rusty’s got a lot of experience, he’s got the most experience on the staff,” Bernier said. “He’s very calm in all scenarios, thinks things through. I’m a very emotional coach. I’m up and down. I needed somebody to balance me, and that’s him.”

After two decades in the high school ranks, making the jump to the college game seemed to be the next logical step.

“I’ve been coaching at different levels for 29 years now and I’ve been a head coach for 21 years now,” said Mercier, 52. “I knew Ray when he was very young, working under his dad (Ray Bernier) at Messalonskee. He also worked for me for a year at Lawrence as our pitching coach. We’ve always been in touch… It’s strange how it’s all connected. But I felt like it was a good opportunity at Thomas. I was very interested in working with Ray. It’s a pretty good group of guys excited about baseball. I guess the thing for me is, it was a nice year to transition. I’m getting up there in years and thought this was a nice to give this a shot at the next level. It’s worked out pretty well for us all.”

At Thomas, Dippner coaches first base and works with the infielders. He also handles out-of-state recruiting.

“I met with Coach Bernier, he told me his vision (for the program),” Dippner said. “It just felt like an awesome opportunity. After talking to my family about it, getting the encouragement from my family, knowing chances like this don’t come around every day. I just thought it was a great opportunity to coach at the next level.

“The thing that’s so fun is that we have a diverse coaching staff. But the thing that Ray has done is let us be who we are,” Dippner continued. I think my style is a more the relational type, a rah-rah kind of coach, bring some energy to the practices and the games.”

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