When thinking of schoolgirl athletics at Calais High School, its basketball tradition immediately comes to mind.
But the Blue Devils have been building a similar tradition on the softball diamond over the last few years, with two trips to the state championship game the last three years, a run that includes a state title in 2009.
Calais did enjoy a strong 2010 season, compiling an undefeated regular season before being upset by rival Woodland in the opening round of the playoffs.
While the Devils graduated some key pieces from that squad, coach Greg Smith’s club does have some young talent, led by junior pitcher Rachel Cundiff. She pitched a strong game in an opening-day road win against Washington Academy of East Machias despite taking a line drive to her shin.
“She did a good job, she’s been really working hard,” said Smith.
Cundiff features a lively fastball and some tough breaking pitches.
Calais will be building around its two seniors in catcher Shannon Brown and third baseman Jenn Ross, neither of whom played those positions in 2010.
“We have to fill three big positions that got vacated last year — catcher, first base and shortstop,” Smith said.
Brown was an infielder before this spring, while Ross saw outfield duty before shifting to third base.
With the exception of those two, Calais’ roster is heavy with sophomores and freshmen, but Smith knows that’s not a bad thing, especially after taking a lesson from a coaching colleague a few years ago.
“I remember a coach telling me after we had made it to the state game, (Georges Valley coach Rusty Worcester), he said ‘how are you going to be next year?’ I said rebuilding. He said ‘don’t think of it as rebuilding, think of it as reloading,’” Smith explained. “And I’ve always remembered that. That’s kind of what you have to do.”
Like a lot of their Eastern Maine peers, the Blue Devils haven’t had a whole lot of practice time outside during the preseason, mainly thanks to the April Fools Day snowstorm, and that showed to some degree on Friday, as the Devils committed a few errors.
“We need to just get outside and take ground balls and do a lot of fielding,” Smith said. “I think that’s going to be the key to us. I think we’re going to hit and I think we’re going to be able to bunt OK, it’s just going to come down to whether or not we can play solid defense.”
Calais did hit the ball well on opening day despite the fact the wind was blowing in, with Brown knocking in three runs, including two with a double.
“That’s one thing that we work on a lot,” Smith said. “These kids, we want them to be aggressive. When the ball’s there, hit it hard.”
Jasmine Ross, who pitched well in relief Friday, and Paige Gillespie will spell Cundiff in the circle, and even though the Blue Devils are young, many of their core players saw heavy playing time last spring.
“We have a couple kids that are on vacation that will probably start for us when they get back,” Smith said. “Most of the freshmen are probably going to contribute.”
Smith sees the Class C field as being a balanced one, with other contenders including defending regional champ George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, Orono and Central of Corinth.
Key dates to remember
While Washington Academy and Calais officially kicked off the Eastern Maine high school softball season on Friday, their regional counterparts will join them this week, with visions of championship glory.
Postseason play kicks off on June 7 with preliminary games. The regional finals are June 14 and 15, with the Class A game in Augusta on June 14 and the Class C game in Brewer the same night.
The Classes B and D finals are June 15, both in Brewer, with the state championship games falling on June 18.
The Class A state final will be at Cony High School in Augusta this spring, with the Class C game in Brewer and Classes B and D at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.
As always, there are plenty of key games on the docket this week, among them rivalry matchups.
Bangor, the reigning Eastern Maine Class A champion, kicks off that title defense with a Wednesday home game against Lawrence of Fairfield before taking on rival Brewer on Friday. Both those contests have 1 p.m. first pitches.
The Witches will start their season with two rivalry games, as the confrontation with Brewer is preceded by an opening-day clash with Hampden Academy on Wednesday at 1.
Other key games around the region this week send defending Class B state champ Hermon to Aroostook County for a Thursday doubleheader with Caribou, and to Lincoln for a regional championship rematch with Mattanawcook Academy on Saturday.
Perennial Class B contender Bucksport opens its season with a home contest against Mount Desert Island Tuesday at 4:30, while Old Town and Orono will renew their longstanding rivalry at Orono Tuesday afternoon with a 1 p.m. first pitch.