LIMESTONE, Maine — With a perfect 9-0 record, it would appear that coach Ryan O’Neal has his Limestone Community School/Maine School of Science and Mathematics softball team right where he wants it.
But he has a young team and would rather be seeing the Eagles get a few more difficult games as the playoffs loom.
“I would much rather face really good pitching, and have a couple more losses, just to get that experience,” said O’Neal, in his fifth year as coach of the Eagles.
He feels they need more experience with close games because he had a huge turnover from last year. A few graduated and some others didn’t come out this spring. His roster shows eight freshmen among the 14 players on the roster, along with two each of the other three classes.
O’Neal has freshmen playing in key positions, such as Madeline Williams at first base and Chelsey Pelkey in center field.
“I really have no choice,” he said. “I have three freshmen starting in the infield and two freshmen in the outfield.
“Only my third baseman [sophomore Ellyzabeth Bencivenga] and catcher [junior Kelsee Albert] are playing the same position. Everybody else is new or changed positions.”
And his one starting senior, shortstop and No. 3 hitter Daniele Pelkey, is out for the season after breaking her arm on the last out of a 26-0 game at Fort Kent on May 3.
“The ball was hit to her left and she had her [glove] arm fully extended,” said O’Neal.
A Warrior runner digging for second ran straight into the extended arm and Pelkey’s forearm broke near the wrist.
“It was a big collision,” said O’Neal. “I was thinking more concussion.”
That was until he saw her arm.
The runner was called out for interference, ending the game, but the play removed another of what was already a limited number of experienced veterans.
O’Neal had to move freshman left fielder Kassee Albert to shortstop.
“She’s done a pretty good job so far,” he said.
What has impressed O’Neal is that the team hasn’t dwelled on any of the adversity and started rolling with the first game, mainly because of the Eagles’ production at the plate.
“Any problems we’ve had, we’ve been able to hit our way out of it,” said O’Neal. “Our batting averages across the board are way up.”
Starting pitcher Melissa Cantafio, a junior with a 7-0 record and 40 strikeouts, is also the team’s top hitter with a nearly .700 batting average, two homers and 24 RBIs.
“She’s a machine,” said O’Neal.
Bencivenga, who also has two wins as the second pitcher, is hitting almost .600 with a home run and 19 RBIs from the leadoff spot.
“She’s more of a gap-to-gap hitter,” O’Neal said. “She has seven doubles and the next closest batters have three.”
Sophomore right fielder Annie Sinclair is just under .500 with 18 RBIs, and Williams is hitting close to .600 with 14 RBIs.
“It’s a lot of kids [contributing] on different nights,” said O’Neal.
O’Neal also likes Cantafio’s performance in the circle.
“If it’s a nice, warm day and she’s throwing well, she’s hard to hit,” he said. “When she gets loose, she’s tough.”
Their pitching has been tough on everyone this season, with one exception: Ashland. The Hornets gave the Eagles fits both times they played. The Eagles won the first one 17-16 at home and the second one 18-13 at Ashland. All of Limestone’s other wins were by 10 or more runs.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s a war every time,” said O’Neal. “It’s a become a rivalry; it’s a battle every time.”
O’Neal says the biggest aspect of his job now is the Eagles’ glovework.
“If we are going to make any run in the playoffs, that’s where we will need to improve,” he said.
He’ll need those improved gloves if he has to run up against defending Class D state champion Penobscot Valley of Howland. The Howlers topped the Eagles 8-2 in the East semifinals with six unearned runs.
The Howlers are 12-0 and in first place in the Eastern Maine D Heal points this year, while the Eagles are second.
The Eagles don’t play Penobscot Valley during the regular season, and he wishes they did because the Howlers’ Kayla Dube is one of the strong pitchers he’d like his team to see more of.
O’Neal has had to find an alternative for his team to see better pitching.
“I’ve got some college girls lined up to give [Limestone] something to brush up on,” he said.
Then if the defense falls into place, too, he likes the Eagles’ chances.
“If we’re doing what we’re capable of doing, we can score two to three runs off anybody,” O’Neal said. “It’s possible.”