ELLSWORTH — Years after his playing career ended, one experience is driving Jake Hackett’s success as a high school coach.
As a sophomore in 1994, Hackett joined the varsity football team at Sanford High School. At the time, the Redskins were in the midst of a stretch so abysmal that the program’s futility was close to becoming national news.
Instead, a new head coach, Mike Fallon, sold Hackett and the rest of Sanford’s sophomore players on building the once-proud program from the ground up to restore it to its former glory. Improving bit by bit with each season, the team went from Class A bottom-feeders to one of Maine’s top football programs. In 1998, two seasons after Hackett graduated, Sanford claimed its first state championship in 39 years.
“We were almost on ESPN for the longest losing streak in Maine high school football history,” Hackett said. “We went from 33 straight losses to winning games and getting better after year. To be part of those teams where you were building up the program, that was a really fun experience.”
Since then, Hackett has made his former coach’s philosophy his own. Now, he’ll do so as head coach of an Ellsworth softball team that’s already established itself as a consistent program in the Class B North ranks.
Hackett began coaching at Ellsworth as an assistant for the girls’ soccer team in 2016 and took over the JV softball team when the former head coach, Dottie Cameron, replaced the retired Rick Roberts at the varsity level in early 2017. Earlier this year, Hackett was named to Cameron’s post after the latter took an assistant coaching position at Colby College.
Prior to his time at Ellsworth, Hackett played men’s slow-pitch softball and was athletic director and head baseball coach at Greenville High School. At Greenville, Hackett entered his first season at the helm with a major rebuilding job ahead of him as the baseball team was looking at an untenable roster of just seven players.
Yet Hackett convinced five more players to come out for Greenville, which ultimately made the playoffs that season. By his fourth season, the Lakers had 25 players, enough to field a JV team for the first time in 25 years.
“My style of coaching is definitely that program-building style,” Hackett said. “Everywhere I’ve been, the goal has been getting numbers to grow by getting people involved and keeping them active.”
At Ellsworth, which has a student body seven times larger than Greenville’s 2015-16 enrollment of just 67 students, that task is set to be a much easier one. The school has had healthy numbers across all spring sports in recent seasons, and its successes on the softball diamond have included playoff wins over the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds the past two years.
“When the playoffs come around, we’re always playing our hardest,” Ellsworth senior Mackenzie Chipman said. “Those big games always bring out the best in us.”
Chipman is entering her third season as a pitcher for the varsity team after splitting starts with Sammy Mason in 2017 and taking over the No. 1 starting spot last year. Sara Shea, the Eagles’ No. 2 pitcher last year, will be back in the circle as well.
Elsewhere, Ellsworth will be rebuilding its infield after losing Katelynn Bagley, Shelby Cote, Hannah Sargent and Mariah Young from last year’s squad. Those players also made up the heart of the Eagles’ batting order last season, though Ellsworth still has three strong hitters returning in Shea (.436 batting average and 24 hits last year, both team bests), Kayla Duhaime (.381 with 16 RBIs) and Katie Hammer (.306).
“Finding the right batting lineup is definitely going to be different this year because we lost three or four power hitters,” Hammer said. “In the infield, we have to replace everybody [from last year]. … It’s going to take a lot to see who can play the positions the best and get the job done for the team.”
Hackett has stressed the importance of strong hitting in Ellsworth’s early practices, and he’s already seen his team make major improvements at the plate. His teams at Greenville won games via offensive firepower, and he wants the Eagles to do the same.
“Good hitting is contagious,” Hackett said. “You get one player going, and the rest of the team gets energized and keeps it up. It gives you momentum.”
Ellsworth is scheduled to begin its preseason slate with a doubleheader against Oceanside starting at noon Saturday, April 6, though field conditions could see that exhibition contest postponed or canceled. The team will start regular season play on the road against George Stevens Academy at 4:30 p.m. April 18.
With six seniors on this year’s Ellsworth team, Hackett and the rest of the Eagles are hoping for a fast start to the season. Yet even when this large senior class departs, the Eagles have a stable foundation for the future with a big crop of eighth-graders that includes Hackett’s daughter, Annabel, set to join the team as freshmen next year.
“At a place like Ellsworth, you know you’re going to have talented, hard-working athletes and a lot of them,” Hackett said. “My personal success comes down to numbers, and we have them here. Moving forward, it’s all about getting the best out of each player and finding room for growth.”