The Limestone Community School/Maine School of Science and Mathematics didn’t let a youthful lineup and the loss of a key player deter it from reaching the Eastern Maine Class D softball championship game last season.
Eight of the 14 players were freshmen and senior shortstop and No. 3 hitter Daniele Pelkey was lost to a broken arm on May 3, but the Eagles still went 17-1. The only loss was a 7-0 setback to senior right-hander Kayla Dube and her Penobscot Valley High School Howlers in the regional final.
Five-year head coach Ryan O’Neal is no longer coaching the Eagles and former Caribou High School JV coach Andrew Kirby has taken over. The 28-year-old Kirby said the loss to PVHS “really left a sour taste in the girls’ mouths and has motivated them this season.”
The Eagles, who took a 2-0 record into Tuesday’s game against Madawaska, want to go at least a step further this season.
They scored 40 runs in their first two games with sophomore center fielder Chelsey Pelkey leading the way. Pelkey had seven hits in eight at-bats.
The eight returning starters all were hitting .415 or better through the first two games.
“All of our girls hit the ball well,” said Kirby, who added that coaching the Eagles has been “quite a bit different” than coaching the Caribou JVs.
“We had some decent players at Caribou but not the all-around talent level we have here. This is a championship-level team already and that has made it easier for me. The girls have welcomed me,” said Kirby.
One aspect of the game he has implemented is bunting.
“They didn’t bunt a lot last year and we’re doing it more. They’re seeing how it can be an advantage moving runners as well as getting on base,” said Kirby.
Senior catcher Kelsee Albert said playing small ball can be a valuable weapon for the Eagles “because no one will be expecting us to bunt.”
Kirby said they all have shown the ability to fake the bunt, pull the bat back and hit the ball hard. Faking the bunt draws the infielders in and opens up more hitting space.
The leading hitter last year was pitcher Melissa Cantafio, who hit .697 with a team-high seven home runs and 44 runs batted in. She is one of three seniors on the roster.
Chelsey Pelkey hit .552 with 25 RBIs and third baseman-pitcher Ellyzabeth Bencivenga, who is a junior, batted .484 with a homer and 23 RBIs.
Catcher Albert hit .468 with a homer and 23 RBIs in 2013 and junior right fielder Annie Sinclair was a .459 hitter.
Sophomore Kassee Albert, the shortstop, was a .441 hitter as a freshman. Two classmates, first baseman Madeline Williams and speedy second baseman Jackie Peers, hit .431 and .415, respectively.
Kassee Albert, who had been the starting left fielder, played shortstop after Daniele Pelkey got hurt. Senior left fielder Jordyn Hopkins is the only new starter.
Sophomore Sarah Hemphill and freshmen Delaney Rossignol and Morganne Emery have seen some duty in the outfield this season.
Kirby said his Eagles have some speed and they will be aggressive on the basepaths.
Cantafio was the ace of the staff last season. She was 12-1 and pitched a four-hitter against Penobscot Valley but issued 11 walks. She struck out 78 in 82 innings.
Bencivenga was 4-0.
“They have both been solid,” said Kirby, who added he is confident with either in the pitching circle.
“I’m going to use Ellyzabeth a lot in relief, especially in games when we get a big lead. That will give Melissa some rest. They both throw hard and have a variety of pitches,” he said.
The Eagles are strong defensively, according to Kirby.
“The whole infield is back. We’re solid,” said Kirby.
He said the rangy Pelkey sheriffs the outfield and Kelsee Albert is a take-charge catcher “who doesn’t let much get by her.”
“She makes sure all the fielders know the situation,” said Kirby.
Kelsee Albert said the transition to the new coach has been smooth, the team has improved over last year and everyone is highly motivated to go further.
The Eagles seek their first regional championship since 1990 when they claimed the EM Class C championship for the third straight year.