Just a year ago, the University of Maine softball team was in the throes of a 28-game losing streak.
The 2009 Black Bears have yet to play a conference game, but already have nine more wins than they had all of last year as they head into America East play with a 20-13 record.
An infusion of young players, a coaching change, and a team attitude adjustment seem to have combined to turn the Bears around.
“They’ve all been very receptive and that’s a big part of it,” said Deb Smith, a former UM softball player back for a second stint as head coach after coaching the University of Rhode Island the last three years. “We have a plan and they’ve all bought into it.”
After an 11-39 season, the UMaine roster was a literal buyers’ market for what Smith was selling, and that was an emphasis on defense, cerebral pitching, versatility, and a steady offensive attack.
“I’m happy overall, but we’re still cleaning things up,” said Smith, whose expectations have been exceeded in some areas and unrealized in others.
“I think the big question mark going in was the pitching and a big thing was how they’re used, but they’ve met expectations and in some cases exceeded,” Smith said. “We don’t have the dominant pitching staff, but we have pitchers who keep us in every game.”
Smith points to the addition of freshman Ashley Kelley (5-4, 2.31 ERA) from Hermon and the transformation of junior Alexis Souhlaris (6-3, 1.74).
“Alexis is a prime example of a thinking pitcher who constantly mixes and moves pitches,” Smith said. “For Ashley to have done this well this early has been impressive. She mixes speeds well, but her movement is outstanding.”
The Bears have a deep staff with senior Jenna Balent (4-2, 2.49) and junior Cayleigh Montano (4-2, 3.64) also piling up early wins.
“Montano has come off the bench in a relief pitching role and done extremely well. She’s a little tiny thing, but throws well, has great movement, and goes right at hitters,” Smith said. “And hitters have a very low batting average [.201] against Balent.”
If pitching has been a pleasant surprise, defense has been an unpleasant one.
“I’d say I’m a little bit underwhelmed with my defense because they’ve made too many mistakes so far,” said Smith, who still thinks Maine can be one of the AE’s top two defensive teams. “That’s one of the areas we’re focused on with our practices as we go into conference play.”
The Bears travel to play three games against University of Maryland, Baltimore County Saturday and Sunday.
Smith has had some solid defensive play, and even developed some defensive specialists like juniors Erin Iandoli and Melinda Corssino, who subs in later innings at right field and third base, respectively.
It’s all about versatility and depth with this squad. Good thing, since the Bears lost backup catcher, chief utility player, and No. 2 hitter Whitney Spangler for the season with a rotator cuff injury.
Sophomore center fielder Kali Burnham (.277, 1 HR, 12 RBIs) has ably filled the void in the No. 2 spot in the lineup and sophomore shortstop Jennifer Puccini grabbed a mitt and got behind the plate to spell starting catcher Stephanie George.
“We have enough depth on this team that we don’t need to panic,” Smith said. “It really has been a full team, 1-through-22 effort. We’ve had kids come in off the bench who have done really well.”
Offensively, Souhlaris leads Maine with a .398 average, 11 home runs, 25 RBIs, AND 13 stolen bases, but Maine has other contributors: Ashley Waters (.354, 3 HR, 19 RBIs) bats leadoff, Burnham’s second, Souhlaris third, sophomore Terren Hall of Bucksport (.296, 1, 23) fourth, and Kirstin Allen (.241, 3, 16) fifth.
“Our 1 through 5 is solid, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the offense, especially what we’ve been getting from some kids who didn’t show much the last two years like [Courtney] Gingrich [.258, 1 HR, 7 RBIs], George [.225, 1, 13], and Kristen Calvetti [.296, 10 RBIs]. They’re not only produc-ing, they’re consistently producing.”
“I don’t need three runs in one inning. I do need one in the first, another in the third, one or two in the fourth and fifth,” she added. “We’ve got to be a group that just won’t go away.”