ORONO — Third-year University of Maine softball coach Deb Smith knows she will have some big spikes to fill this season.
Second baseman Alexis Souhlaris, the 2009 America East Co-Player of the Year and 2010 AE First Team selection, has graduated along with right fielder Whitney Spangler, shortstop Kristen Calvetti, pitcher Cayleigh Montano and catcher Stephanie George.
Souhlaris led the team in batting average (.416), runs (43), hits (64), on-base percentage (.494) and stolen bases (27) last spring. Spangler hit .327, which was third best on the team, and was second in stolen bases with 10. Calvetti hit .261 and made just 10 errors in 51 games; George started 33 of 51 games and was solid defensively and Montano was 4-4 with a 2.36 earned run average.
Souhlaris was also 5-5 as a pitcher with a team-leading 2.30 earned run average.
But Smith and her Black Bears are optimistic thanks to the combination of high-caliber veterans and impressive newcomers.
“We have a lot of talent but we’ll be pretty inexperienced,” said Smith, who has led her Black Bears to a 55-50 record in two seasons after the Bears had gone 11-39 in the season prior to her arrival. They were 23-28 a year ago, 11-7 in America East.
“(Souhlaris and Spanger) were real key players for us last year but I think we can replace them,” said senior third baseman Terren Hall from Bucksport.
“We’ve worked hard in the offseason and we’ve improved a lot. We have players who are ready to step up,” said junior second baseman Brynne Davis from Winslow.
“We’ll be a different team than we were a year ago but I think we’re going to be a better team overall,” said junior pitcher Ashley Kelley from Hermon.
The Black Bears don’t return anyone with more than three stolen bases so they will have to alter their offensive strategy.
“We don’t have any speed so our game will be along the lines of hit-and-runs or run-and-hits, using sacrifice bunts and squeeze bunts (more), hitting the gaps,” said Smith. “We have a decent amount of power but some of it is young power so we’ll see how they mature and develop throughout the season.”
Hall is the primary power threat as she led the team in homers (13), runs-batted in (53), total bases (111), slugging percentage (.673) and doubles (11). She hit .370 and was a first-team All-America East pick.
“I take pride in my hitting. Hopefully, I’ll hit some home runs this season but I’m not really looking for that,” said Hall. “I just want to stay consistent, get on base and deliver my teammates.”
Smith said she anticipates opponents pitching around Hall but said, “the exciting thing is we won’t have to rely on her solely. We’ll have a lot of firepower in front and behind her in the lineup if the kids hit up to their capabilities.”
Senior Kali Burnham (.290-0 homers-15 RBIs), who will play either left or center field, and senior first baseman Kirstin Allen (.242-4-28) will be among the hitters expected to complement Hall in the lineup.
Junior college transfer Jennifer Eberhardt will inherit the shortstop position with junior Margaret Hilton (.222-0-7) also seeing duty there. Hilton and Davis will platoon at second.
Sophomore Hilary Kane (.163) can fill in at first or third.
Senior Cassie Hodgson (.118), junior Lindsey Jenkins (.182) and freshman Dagmar Ralphs are in the outfield picture along with Burnham and vying for time behind the plate will be sophomores Jenny MacDowell (.206) and Jillian Benson (.353 in 7 games) and freshman Jean Stevens.
Redshirt freshman Meghan McLain from Orrington and Brewer High has looked promising as the potential designated hitter, according to Smith. Ralphs, Stevens and Kane are also possibilities.
Smith said her defense will be stronger than last year.
“Eberhardt has more range than Calvetti and our outfield defense has improved tremendously,” said Smith.
The Black Bears have a solid one-two punch on the mound in All-America East second-teamer Kelley (10-5, 2.91 earned run average, 61 strikeouts and 24 walks in 101 innings) and All-Rookie team choice Beth Spoehr (2-8, 3.74), who is a sophomore.
“I’ve set high goals for myself,” said Kelley. “I want to be a dominant pitcher in the league and shut down any hitter.”
They will be complemented by freshman Kylie Sparks.
“Kylie will eat up some innings for us. She’s more of a junkball pitcher,” said Smith. “She has a phenomenal changeup. She’s very smart. She’s a big-time gamer.”
Maine has been picked fifth in America East and that’s where the Bears were chosen last year before finishing second. They went 1-2 in the America East tournament that they hosted because Boston University had a scheduling conflict.
Maine opens Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette and Stephen F. Austin in Lafayette, La.