After struggling through a 28-game losing streak en route to an 11-39 season and seeing a coaching change in the offseason, returning members of the University of Maine softball team were eager to put 2008 in their rear view mirrors and hit the road in 2009.
The Black Bears have a week off before heading south again after starting the season with a three-day, five-game trip to Tennessee. The Bears went 1-4, but new coach Deb Smith is happy with what she has seen from her team so far.
“The biggest thing we all saw is they can play with anyone,” said Smith, a UMaine alumna (1994) and former UM head coach (1999-2004) who returned to replace Stacy Sullivan after coaching the University of Rhode Island the last three seasons. “But they really need to work on their confidence and not being so stuck in the past.”
The Bears handled themselves respectably against solid competition like Atlantic Coast Conference member Virginia Tech (4-1 loss) and host school University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (3-1 loss), yielding an average of just 3.8 runs per game over all five games.
“I think we have the ability to have the top defense in America East this season,” said Smith, who is also impressed with the team’s pitching. “I really think they could be something to watch.
“Our pitchers were solid and I think that was translated in terms of the confidence our infield has in them.”
If not for one particularly bad inning in all but one game, the Bears might now be sporting a 3-2 or better record. That bad-inning inclination is a holdover from 2008 and one Smith wants to banish as soon as possible.
“You could see a loss of confidence when things started going wrong,” Smith said. “That’s what I mean by confidence. Rather than waiting for the bottom to drop out, we want to have the mindset that a mistake is a surprise and something we shake off quickly instead of letting it affect us.”
An infusion of youth in the form of four freshmen led by pitcher Ashley Kelley of Hermon, some talented sophomores like AE All-Rookie Team member Terren Hall of Bucksport and veteran players like AE player of the year Ashley Waters should help Smith accomplish that goal.
Kelley, who is 100 percent recovered from surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in February 2008, opened some eyes with her three outings — two coming in relief.
“She’s picked up speed and she did a good job of using her movement along with her speed,” said Smith. “The team played with tons of confidence behind her and I expect big things from her.”
Starting center fielder Alexis Souhlaris (0-1) and senior pitcher Jenna Balent (1-1) also looked solid in the circle. The Bears also have Cayleigh Montano and Christine McGivney as go-to arms.
“I think we’ll see kids grow into roles because we have very different styles and speeds among our pitchers,” Smith said. “That gives us a lot of options.”
Waters and Hall solidify the Bears’ batting order and defensive lineup as leadoff hitter/second baseman and No. 3 hitter/third baseman, respectively — at least for the foreseeable future.
“Leadoff was a big hole and question mark for us, but Ashley filled it well, batting .375 for the weekend, and Hall can hit either three or four for us,” Smith said. “Alexis would be better at leadoff because of her speed, but for now, we need someone to get on and Ashley does that very well.”
The other “definites” in the batting order include utility player Whitney Spangler and Souhlaris in the 2-3 spots, catcher Stephanie George at No. 6, and first baseman Courtney Gingrich in the No. 7 hole.
The rest of the lineup will be filled by platoon players Kirstin Allen (first base), left fielder Kali Burnham, Kristen Calvetti and Jennifer Puccini at shortstop, and right fielder Erin Iandoli.
“We have some players who are going to start the season in a platoon situation, but anything can happen as we get further along,” Smith said.