BUCKSPORT, Maine — Bob Mercer admitted that he was on “cloud nine” after Old Town, Bucksport and Penobscot Valley High School of Howland captured state softball championships last month.
That’s because the winning pitchers for all three teams were his proteges.
Old Town’s Kendra Hayward, Bucksport’s Cassidy Adams and PVHS’ Kayla Dube impressively pitched their teams to state championships in Classes B, C and D, respectively.
And all three were juniors.
“It was a very, very special day,” said Mercer. “It was awesome. I was excited for the kids.”
It was the second time three players tutored by Mercer pitched their teams to state championships in one season.
Mercer has been teaching girls how to pitch since 1983. He gives pitching lessons on Sundays from mid-September until the weekend before the state title games in June.
“But I didn’t start doing it as a business until the early 1990s,” said Mercer, who as a head coach led Searsport and Bucksport High School to state softball championships.
The former three-sport athlete at Bucksport High School and graduate of Maine Maritime Academy began coaching at the middle school in Searsport in 1972.
Three years later, Mercer became the head softball coach at Searsport High and he led the Vikings to the state title in 1978.
He moved on to his alma mater and guided the Golden Bucks to three state championships in 13 seasons.
While he was at Bucksport, one of his pitchers, Lisa Tilley, attended a prestigious summer softball camp in Rhode Island and learned a new way to pitch.
“She had been a sling-shotter but she came back as a windmiller,” said Mercer.
There is a stop in the middle of the slingshot motion but the windmill is one continuous motion.
He used to send videotapes of her to successful high school coach and former UConn volunteer pitching coach Peter Looney and Looney would analyze them.
Mercer taught the windmill and began his pitching business after he left Bucksport.
Former Brewer High School ace Tami Corey and Bangor star Becca Kinney were among his early students along with Jonesport-Beals’ Sandi Carver and Bucksport’s Jen Wardwell and Pearla and Sheri Bridges.
“Sandi Carver was the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” said Mercer.
He has two-hour sessions every Sunday at Bucksport Middle School with seven to nine pitchers in each session.
“We charge a nominal fee with some of the proceeds going to the Bucksport All-Sport Boosters Club that sponsors us,” said Mercer. “Nobody is turned away because they can’t afford it.”
His girls will spend a year perfecting one pitch before going on to another pitch.
The change-up and the drop are two of the first pitches he will teach before moving on to the most difficult pitch: the rise ball.
“Sometimes the rise ball takes two to three years because it goes against the law of nature. Everything is backward. You have to get the rotation at right angles to your body. You have to give it the right spin so it will rise,” explained Mercer.
He said once a pitcher can master a rise ball, it’s an easy transition to learn the curve because it’s a similar technique.
“He focuses on one pitch at a time and he makes sure we’re focused on it,” said Adams, who began working with Mercer in seventh grade. “He sets up goals for us.”
“His motto is get your speed up first and then get the spin,” said Hayward. “And one of the things I really like about him is he doesn’t give you a ton of pitches to work on. That’s why a lot of us have only a few pitches. But they all work very well.”
“I have girls tell me they have five different pitches but they actually just have a fastball with five different names,” said Mercer. “The pitches they learn from me actually have movement on them because of the spin they have on it. I teach speed and spin together after the basic motion.”
But Mercer feels his real strength is teaching the mental aspect of the game.
“I would put my ability to coach the mental side of softball up against anyone,” said the 65-year-old Mercer. “Seventy percent of pitching is mental.
“I harp on two things: trusting yourself and staying in the moment,” said Mercer. “The only important thing is the next pitch. You can only deal with things you can control.
“If someone makes an error and three runs score, there’s not a darned thing you can do about it. You have to focus on the next pitch and trust yourself to throw it.”
“He knows how to keep my head straight,” said Hayward. “He gets involved with you as a person and understands you.”
“He also likes to teach you life lessons. Sometimes he’ll assign you a [softball] book to read,” added Hayward.
Adams and Hayward said they wouldn’t have had the success they’ve had without him.
Mercer enjoys his job and said the most rewarding aspect of it is “seeing the light come on when they get it. They understand what it’s all about. You’ll see it on their face.”
He also enjoys watching his proteges go on to coach the sport.
That’s not to say every pitcher is going to lead her team to a state title.
“When they start with me, I’m very clear with them. I tell them I’m not a genie with a magic wand,” said Mercer. “I can give you information on how to become a good pitcher. But it’s up to you and how hard you want to work.
“The only guarantee I’ll make them is that they will be better than they were when they walked in,” said Mercer, the father of three and grandfather of 10.