For the second straight year, a University of Maine softball player was America East Player of the Year.
And for a second straight year, the Black Bears missed the conference tournament.
Such was the bittersweet season that saw the Bears go 32-22 — a 21-game improvement over their 2008 season, but still 1½ games out of the fourth and final playoff spot.
“I would say it was positive overall, but we were clearly disappointed in not making the tournament,” said Maine head coach Deb Smith. “We saw where some of our holes were and the things we need to work on to get this program back where it should be.”
Where the program should be, according to Smith, is an annual conference tournament participant and title contender.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a program that should be in the conference tournament every year because of the support we get from the athletic department and the quality of players we recruit here,” she said flatly.
Alexis Souhlaris certainly exemplifies that quality. The junior outfielder and pitcher was first among AE hitters in hits with 73, runs (48), and total bases (126); second in batting average (.397), and third in home runs (12) and stolen bases (25). She also went 6-6 with a 2.76 ERA in the circle.
She and the University at Albany’s Meagan Butsch were named AE Co-Players of the Year Wednesday.
“I thought my name would get brought up, but I really thought they’d give it to Butsch,” Souhlaris said. “I guess I didn’t consider the option that there might be co-players. When coach told me, I was so excited because she’s such a great player.
“That’s what anyone would want is to be considered one of the best in the conference.”
It was quite a turnaround from a frustrating sophomore season that — at times — reduced Souhlaris to tears.
“I wasn’t getting any kind of positive feedback from anywhere, I had some personal problems off the field, and I never really felt like I was getting on a roll,” said Souhlaris, who had eight homers, 17 RBIs and 12 steals last year. “It was hard because I’m a stat rat and I wasn’t seeing anything encouraging there either.
“Hitting .291 [last season] may be good for some players, but that’s not good enough for me. I kind of got burnt out too because I got sick of doing poorly.”
Souhlaris said her revival started in the offseason.
“This year was really all about getting the confidence back and with new coaches, it was like getting a fresh start,” she said.
Smith, a UMaine alumna (1994), coached Maine from 1999 to 2004 and returned to replace Stacy Sullivan after coaching the University of Rhode Island the last three seasons.
As far as Maine’s “holes” go, Smith points to the defense.
“We finished fifth in America East in fielding and that’s where we finished in the standings, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Smith said. “That hurt us at different points in the season.”
Maine, which was second in hitting at .288, committed 24 errors in 21 conference games and allowed 17 unearned runs.
“We know where we should be. It literally comes down to putting the last pieces together, and most of them involve our defensive component and our pitching,” Smith said. “We made huge strides and are much improved from last year, but obviously have to continue to clean up the pitching.”
Senior Jenna Balent needed no further cleaning up as she earned second team all-conference honors. The former AE Rookie of the Year (2006) went a career-best 14-5 with a 1.91 ERA.
Other standouts for the Bears were senior second baseman and 2008 AE Player of the Year Ashley Waters (.339, 3 homers, 29 RBIs) and junior catcher Steph George (.264, 5 HR, 24 RBIs), who were named to the 2009 AE All-Conference first team; as well as Ashley Kelley, a freshman pitcher from Hermon who was an AE All-Rookie Team pick after going 7-7 with a 3.03 ERA.