Skowhegan High School’s Sierra Carey, Hall-Dale’s Ashlynn Donahue and Searsport’s Ana Lang were the winning pitchers in their teams’ state championship games last season in Class A, C and D, respectively.
In addition to being state titlists, they have another thing in common.
They all have the same pitching guru: former policeman Rick Roberts.
Every Sunday beginning in October and ending in June, Roberts works with softball pitchers of all ages from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They come from all over the state to Milligan’s Landing LLC in Old Town. He used to hold his sessions in Ellsworth.
The 90-minute sessions have between six to nine pitchers in each. Roberts, Husson University’s pitching coach, also works with pitchers on an individual basis at the Sluggers softball and baseball facility in Brewer during the week and on Saturdays.
“I love him. He’s my favorite person ever,” said Lang, who is a junior at Searsport High. “I have been working with him since I was 12.
“He definitely made me into the player I am today,” added Lang.
Another one of his proteges is Hampden Academy senior pitcher Danielle Masterson, who has had a terrific year for the Broncos to earn a spot on the All-Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference first team along with Skowhegan’s Carey.
She will pitch for him at Husson next season.
“He is super supportive and dedicated to making all the pitchers the best they can be,” said Masterson. “He really knows each girl, and he individualizes everyone’s lesson so they can get the best out of it.
“He’s tough and pushes you, but he knows when to step back and let you figure things out, which is important as a pitcher,” added Masterson. “I can’t wait to keep working with him at Husson.”
Other Roberts students who have had impressive seasons include Nokomis’ Mia Coots, who pitched the Warriors to the top seed in Class B North, Bangor’s Lane Barron, Bucksport’s Ella Hosford, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln’s Jennie Whitten, Lawrence of Farfield’s Sage Reed, Ellsworth’s Tyler Hellum and Mount Desert Island’s Addy Boyce.
Roberts was born in Denver and spent a lot of his childhood in California where he became a pretty good slow-pitch pitcher.
He said he was 19 or 20 years old when his slow-pitch team went to another ballpark to play a game.
He was arching long high pitches to his catcher when the umpire asked him what he was doing.
“I told him I was warming up. He told me this is a fast-pitch league,” said Roberts, who gave fast-pitch a shot.
“I just threw and ducked,” he chuckled.
He had exposure to the fast-pitch windmill delivery from a coach in middle school, and he became intrigued by the mechanics of fast-pitch pitching.
So he learned more about it and became a fast-pitch pitcher.
Roberts was a policeman in Los Angeles, but after 12 years on the force, he retired and moved to Maine with daughter Krystal and wife Lori, who has family roots in Bucksport.
He eventually served in the Ellsworth police department and, early in his 22-year career, he observed a lot of teenagers hanging out in parking lots “with nothing to do.”
“So I got them involved in softball. They needed to have something to do,” he said.
He became an assistant coach at Ellsworth High and established his pitching clinics.
Roberts eventually became the head coach at Ellsworth but became “frustrated” by a Maine Principals Association rule that forbids coaches from working with their own players during the fall and winter months.
“So I would wind up working with kids from other schools, and then they would turn around and beat us,” said Roberts, who stepped down as the head coach and concentrated on just being a pitching coach.
He said he keeps things “pretty simple.”
“I tell them to be happy but never be satisfied,” said the 63-year-old Roberts. “Every single kid brings something different. You never compare them to each other.
“We don’t talk about winning and losing. It’s about being positive and always striving to do the best you can,” he said. “And we never use the word ‘can’t.’”
He also said it is about development as a person, not just a softball pitcher.
“What I have found is that more important than wins and losses is seeing them come out of their shells and become confident off the field as well as on the field,” Roberts said. “It isn’t just about pitching.”
Former Old Town High star McKenna Smith, the North Atlantic Conference Pitcher of the Year for Husson this past spring and a long-time Roberts protege, said Roberts has been like a “second dad” to her.
“He teaches you to be confident in yourself and trust your abilities and that correlates into your academics and as a person in everyday life,” Smith said.
Roberts is a stickler for proper mechanics.
“Even though (pitching a softball) is a very natural movement, you can still tear your shoulder up,” he said.
He is also very careful not to put his young pitchers in the circle too soon.
“You don’t want to lose them. You don’t want them to find it too hard and want to stop,” he explained. “You want to set them up to succeed.”
However, he noted that failure is part of the game and you have to be able to deal with failure and learn from it.
“We fail more than we succeed,” he said.
He is a firm believer in changing speeds and teaches all of his pitchers a changeup, along with all the other pitches: fastballs, drops, riseballs, curves, screwballs, different spins.
He finds which ones work for each pitcher and teaches them how to locate the ball to keep the hitters off-balance.
He is a softball junkie who has a thirst for knowledge that he can pass on to his students.
“I still have a huge passion for it. I’m online all the time seeing what’s being taught. You can learn a lot from other coaches,” he said.
Several of his pitchers have gone on to college careers like Smith, who first pitched for NCAA Division II Saint Anselm College (N.H.) before transferring to Husson.
“He has had a huge impact on me. I wouldn’t be the person or the player I am today without him,” Smith said. “He will do anything for anybody. He is so dedicated. ”