ORONO — Boston University has been the standard against which most America East softball programs have measured themselves in recent years.
Having taken two out of three games from the Terriers last weekend, in Boston, the University of Maine has inserted itself into the conversation as a legitimate challenger for the conference title this season.
Coach Deb Smith’s Black Bears (14-20 overall, 5-1 AE) are preparing for their home-opening series this weekend with renewed energy as they hope to continue a recent run during which they have won six of their last seven games.
UMaine takes on Stony Brook for two games Saturday (1 p.m.) and one Sunday (11 a.m.) at Kessock Field, where they look to build on their momentum.
“I think everything is just starting to click,” Smith said. “They are gaining a ton of confidence. They feel good about the way they’re playing.”
Smith said Saturday also is Youth Day, which will cater to kids in the area.
The Bears started believing in themselves more after a three-game sweep at Maryland Baltimore County two weeks ago. However, the Boston University series was the clincher in terms of boosting UMaine’s confidence.
“We were really excited,” said senior third baseman Terren Hall of Bucksport who has pushed her UMaine career home runs mark to 33. “I don’t remember the last time we took two out of three from BU. They’re good every year.”
Despite being picked to finish fifth in the America East preseason coaches poll, the Bears went into the BU series with the mindset the Terriers were their top rival in the quest to make a run at the conference championship.
Even so, Smith made sure her team approached BU as simply another opponent and not put the Terriers on a pedestal.
Having nearly swept BU, UMaine has reaffirmed that it has ability to prove the coaches wrong.
“We’re feeling like we are one of the top teams in America East,” said junior pitcher Ashley Kelley of Hermon.
The Bears struggled out of the gate during their nonconference schedule. Many of the difficulties came at the plate.
“When we left for our southern trip, we did not expect to have the issues with offense that we did,” Smith said of her team, which takes a lackluster .230 team batting average into the Stony Brook series.
Smith explained the offensive struggles led to players pressing not only with the bats, but in the field. The Bears were caught in the trap of overthinking everything.
“They started to tighten up on defense, feeling like they really couldn’t make mistakes. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Smith said.
However, the bats have come around of late. UMaine is averaging a healthy 5.8 runs per game over its last nine outings.
Smith said the Bears have received contributions from throughout the lineup, which has taken some of the pressure off the top of hitters near the top of the order.
The resurgence of the offense has helped the Bears relax and perform well in all facets of the game.
“A lot of people are getting in the swing of playing in conference,” Kelley said. “We’ve had a good level of focus going in and are taking it one inning at a time.”
Of late, the offensive improvement has enabled the Bears to relax, play stress-free defense and let the pitchers go after hitters.
UMaine is excited about the prospect of playing at Kessock Field, which on Tuesday still had a few spots of crusty snow and was soggy in the outfield. The forecast fair weather should help dry things out for the weekend.
“It will definitely be nice not to have to travel,” Kelley said.
She said the Bears’ mindset now centers on taking the upper hand in games and using that to their advantage.
“We’ve been getting ahead of teams and in the last few innings we’re doing a great job of putting a bunch of runs up and putting the other team away,” she said.
BEAR TRACKS: The Maine softball team is selling raffle tickets to raise money to support its program. The tickets are $20 apiece and a total of 150 will be sold. Prizes include a Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain authenticated signed print, an Old Town Vapor kayak, and a major league baseball signed by Boston Red Sox infielder Jed Lowrie along with four tickets to a Portland Sea Dogs game. Those wishing to purchase tickets may contact assistant coach Linnea Utecht at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-581-4509. The drawing will be held at Kessock Field on May 8, Maine’s final regular-season game.
Bissell honored by Gallaudet
Former Brewer High School baseball standout Billy Bissell has been named men’s Bison of the Month by the Gallaudet University athletics department.
Bissell, a redshirt freshman outfielder who sat out last spring with the Washington, D.C.-based baseball team due to a knee injury, played in all 17 games for Gallaudet during March, collecting 22 hits in 52 at-bats for a .423 batting average with six multi-hit games. His 12 extra-base hits included seven doubles, two triples and three home runs, contributing to a .808 slugging percentage. Bissell also drew 12 walks and striking out only nine times while compiling a .538 on-base percentage. He also contributed 14 runs, 22 RBI and eight stolen bases.
In the field, Bissell had 54 putouts and three assists while committing only two errors.
His biggest came against Stevenson on March 9 when he totaled five RBI and two runs scored on three hits and a walk.
The Bison ended March with a 6-11 record.
“Billy has done everything we have expected of him and beyond. He has played great defense, hit the ball very well and has helped carry the team,” said Gallaudet coach Curtis Pride in a press release. “Billy has a very bright future.”