HERMON, Maine — Every athlete has to pay his or her dues.
It may mean playing on the school’s junior varsity team for a year or two or being a reserve before getting a chance to shine and earning more playing time.
Hermon High School softball pitcher Abby Burgess has been the model of perseverance.
She toiled for three years on the JV team because the varsity team had a top-notch pitcher in Deb Colpitts, who went on to have a productive freshman season while seeing limited service at Husson University in Bangor this past spring.
Unlike baseball pitchers, softball pitchers can pitch virtually every day because the underarm motion is much less taxing on the arm.
Burgess was handed the ball by Hermon coach Steph Biberstein this spring and the 17-year-old righthander has responded dramatically. She has been nothing short of superb.
Burgess has pitched every game and has led the Hawks to a 15-1 record and the second seed in the Eastern Maine Class B playoffs. She has a minuscule 0.68 ERA.
In 100 innings, she has struck out 103 and walked just 13. She has allowed only 51 hits.
“She has been amazing. She has done more than we could have possibly asked for this season,” said Biberstein. “She was an incredible talent but was kind of an unknown coming into the season because Debbie had been ahead of her.”
Biberstein had decided a year ago to keep Burgess on the JV team so she could pitch regularly rather than bring her up to the varsity and have her waste away on the bench.
Burgess agreed with her coach’s decision.
“I would have rather pitched for the JVs than sit on the bench with the varsity. It enabled me to improve,” said Burgess.
Her improvement has been tremendous, according to Biberstein.
“Her velocity and control have improved and the mental aspect of her game has really come on. She has command in the circle. She’s composed and that’s what every team needs,” said Biberstein.
“I used to get riled up and show my emotions,” said Burgess. “But [Biberstein] told me to make sure I always have my game face on. When you get riled up and the other team sees it, they get excited [and it gives them momentum].”
Now if she walks someone or gives up a hit, “I just shake it off.”
Burgess, who stands 5-foot-2, throws five pitches: fastball, rise, drop, screwball and changeup.
She worked on all of her pitches during summer softball. She also has spent a lot of Sundays with renowned pitching coach Paul Rodrigue at Bangor’s Fields4Kids indoor facility.
“He helped me improve so many of my pitches,” said Burgess. “He polished them up.”
The screwball and changeup are the newcomers to her repertoire.
“Summer softball allowed me to mess around with different pitches,” said Burgess. “My changeup has improved quite a lot. I’ve been striking people out with it. I developed my screwball and now I throw it quite a lot. It’s good for getting lefthanded hitters out.”
A righthanded pitcher’s screwball breaks away from lefthanded hitters.
She said she also spent considerable time on her rise ball.
“I feel confident throwing all five pitches,” said Burgess.
“She is one of the top pitchers in Class B,” said Ellsworth coach Rick Roberts. “She was patient. She waited for her turn and that’s why she’s done so well.”
“She isn’t overpowering, but she moves the ball around well and knows how to get hitters out,” added Roberts, whose Eagles will face her in the quarterfinals at 4 p.m. Thursday in Hermon.
Burgess admitted she was “really stressed” coming into the season as the new No. 1 pitcher.
“But everybody was so welcoming and Coach Biberstein was always there if I needed to talk to her,” said Burgess.
She also said pitching coach Duane Graves “has been a really big help.”
Sophomore catcher Shaniah Haskell, a converted infielder, has been instrumental in her success. Burgess has confidence throwing to Haskell and hitting the spots Haskell sets for her.
“She has improved tremendously. She amazes us every single day,” said Burgess.
Haskell is also the team’s leading hitter with a .429 average. Cleanup hitter Sami Schultz is right behind at .415.
Burgess said she has been proud of her accomplishments but she is even more proud of her team and the way it has battled through an injury-filled campaign.
“I don’t know of any other team that could have pulled together through all these injuries and made it as far as we have,” said Burgess. “We’ve stayed positive throughout and we’ve worked our tails off.”
Eagles peaking now
Burgess’ next assignment will be challenging as Ellsworth enters Thursday’s quarterfinal with seven wins in its previous eight games, including Tuesday’s 11-2 preliminary round victory over Camden Hills.
The Eagles have scored 72 runs in those seven wins.
“I think we’re playing our best softball right now,” said coach Roberts. “I think we can hit as well as any team in Class B.”
“We work on hitting every day,” said senior left fielder Phyllicia Jordan.
“We have two-hour practices and we probably spend an hour and fifteen minutes on hitting,” said Roberts.
He said one of the keys to their recent success is the hitters have shortened their swings, enabling them to get around on live fastballs better.
Senior third baseman Ashlee Leighton-Bragg has been the team’s leading hitter. She is hitting over .600. Roberts has several other hitters around the .500 mark, including junior catcher Cristin Wright, freshman first baseman Emily Berry, junior right fielder Annika Firestone and senior shortstop Sam McGuire.