Off and running

A familiar face will be in the dugout for the Milford High School softball team this year.

But when people see Jim Rines wearing a blue ‘M’ on his hat, they might have to do a double take.

After six years away from coaching the high school game, the longtime Souhegan coach is back, only now he’ll be leading a team he once considered a major rival. For the returning varsity players, they couldn’t be happier.

“I was looking forward to what he could do with us,” Milford senior Katherine Paul said of when she found out Rines would be the new coach.

“It gives us more confidence because he’s been through it all,” Milford junior Julie Mazzeo added. “He’s been coaching for about 25 years, so he’s seen a lot of things.”

Rines was the head coach at Souhegan for 15 years, leading the Sabers to five championship games in the former Class I, including the program’s only title in 2003. Since stepping down after the 2008 season, he’s worked as an assistant coach at Plymouth State University, and will continue to do so in a reduced role.

For a few years, Rines had looked for a way back into the high school game, but none of the coaching openings felt right.

“I had been thinking of some other schools that had openings, but I didn’t feel they had the passion within the town to move forward,” Rines said. “When I found out that Dick (Albert) was retiring, I said that’d be a good opportunity to get back into the high school game. The history has been overall solid and they’ve always had good athletes here. It’s something to continue to build on.”

Rines knows firsthand what the Milford program is capable of, having lost to the Spartans in the 2006 title game. But since then, Milford has failed to get past the quarterfinals.

Despite having a young team – there are just three seniors on the varsity roster – Rines believes this group can do big things, if it focuses on the fundamentals of the game.

“They’re always on time and they are eager, ready to learn and listen,” he said. “They’re very athletic. The biggest thing to me is to be able to catch and throw properly, and in this sport, if you can do that, you’ll be successful.

“I view it in a different way now than I did 15 years ago. I think their rival in the competition is the ball, because without the ball, they cannot play the game. They’re in competition with the game itself. Catch, throw, pitch, run, hit, play the game, and the teams that focus on that will have a better outcome. If they do that, the scoreboard will dictate their success.”

While Paul and fellow senior Jennifer Dupuis were sad to see Albert step down, they were excited – if not a bit nervous – about a new coach taking over.

“I loved (Albert), he was a great coach,” Dupuis said. “It’s tough coming into senior year and having a completely different coach, but it’s turned out to be really good. We have a great team this year, I think, and he’s going to help us.”

With four freshmen on the roster and a couple of sophomores who contributed a year ago, the Spartans could have just the right mix of youth and experience to be a contender in Division II this season.

“Our group, they’re young, but with the freshmen, I have to fight to be better than they are,” Paul said. “It’s a really strong, young group.”

When the season starts on Monday, against defending champion ConVal, there’s no question what the goal is.

“I think we’re capable of winning a lot of games this year,” Mazzeo said. “As coach says, he wants to win, and we will win. We all have connections together. No one is not part of the team, and we all love softball.”