ORONO, Maine — Missing the playoffs last year may have been a good thing after all for the University of Maine softball team.
After dropping a few close games early in the season and having to put on a big push down the stretch in a playoff bid that fell just short, the Black Bears learned the value of putting teams away when they have the chance.
The Bears appeared to be putting that lesson into practice while sweeping this weekend’s series against Binghamton University and winning five of their first six America East Conference games.
The Bears, now 16-20 overall, capped the sweep with a 3-2 victory over the Bearcats Sunday at Kessock Field.
“It really allows us to not have to feel like we have to be perfect and win them all. We can lose a game here and there and not have to press because of it,” said Maine head coach Deb Smith. “I think this team really does have that killer instinct now where in the past we might have let teams off the hook.”
Pitching continued to be a strength as Alexis Souhlaris (5-3) picked up her second win of the weekend and Beth Spoehr picked up her fourth total save.
“We thought about starting Beth, but she’s really taken to the relief role and we figured why mess with something that’s working?” Smith said. “And Alexis did a really nice job mixing pitches and changing speeds yesterday.”
The game was a scoreless pitching duel between Souhlaris and Binghamton’s Kristen Emerling until the bottom of the fifth, when Jenny MacDowell hit a leadoff single to spark a three-run outburst. After Cassie Hodgson bunted her over to second, No. 9 hitter Brynne Davis scored her with a triple to right center.
“She’s kind of our secret weapon. We stick her right down there at the bottom of the lineup and she’s come up with some big hits for us,” said Smith, who is trying to lead the Bears to their first playoff appearance in four years.
Davis then scored on Souhlaris’ double down the left- field line and Souhlaris scored from second on a single up the middle by Whitney Spangler.
Souhlaris tagged home plate after a jarring collision with Binghamton catcher Deannie Plemon. Plemon was shaken up, but remained in the game.
That was good for Binghamton as the 15-11 Bearcats came right back in the top of the sixth with Jessica Phillips, Stephanie Valencia, and Plemon hitting three straight singles. Plemon scored Phillips from second and chased Souhlaris as Smith brought Spoehr in to relieve.
Spoehr got Briana Andrews on a popup to short and then got the play of the game on an impromptu pickoff throw after taking the throw-back from catcher Whitney Spangler. Spoehr caught Plemon too far off third for the second out. Valencia then scored on a one-out single to right by Stephanie DeLuca, but averted further trouble with a flyout to right.
Spoehr, a starting pitcher in high school, said it was all about settling herself down.
“I’d say in the sixth, when there were runners on third and second and the second run scored,” the freshman righthander explained. “I took a second to get myself together and refocus on one pitch at a time.
“My screwball was working really well today. I’ve been practicing it all this week and I threw it quite a bit. I struggled with it last week, but it came through today.”
Souhlaris, who is already the school’s all-time career in RBIs and steals, is also now Maine’s career hits leader with 219. She passed Ashley Waters, who had 215 from 2006 to 2009, and is currently tied for career runs scored with 133.
“Those are goals I set at the beginning of the season, so it’s nice to know I’m exceeding them,” said Souhlaris. “It’s nice to get them accomplished and focus even more on the goals we have as a team.”
Spoehr allowed a one-out walk and two-out single in the seventh, but stranded the runners by getting the last out herself on a come-backer to the circle.
On Saturday, Ashley Kelley of Hermon notched her eighth win and fifth complete game of the season with a six-hit shutout in the first game as Maine won 4-0.
Hilary Kane hit a solo home run and Souhlaris had two singles and two steals. Maine scored two unearned runs on errors.
In the second game, Souhlaris and Spoehr combined for a five-hit shutout for another 4-0 Maine win.
Again, Maine scored two unearned runs on BU errors before adding two more with two outs in the fifth on an RBI double by Kali Burnham and an RBI single by Kirstin Allen.
Saturday’s First Game
Binghamton 000 000 0 — 0 5 4
Maine 111 001 x — 4 6 3
Marsteller and Plemon; Kelley and George
Saturday’s Second Game
Binghamton 000 000 0 — 0 5 4
Maine 110 020 x — 4 6 1
Price, Emerling (5) and Plemon; Souhlaris, Spoehr (6) and Spangler