Mike Coutts has been a part of several memorable seasons during his impressive playing and coaching career.
That includes his time at the University of Maine, in the Cape Cod League and at Deering High School in Portland.
But this year’s Black Bears softball team, which forced a conference championship game against Albany by winning two elimination contests, will have a special place in his heart.
“This is about so much more than a softball game. It’s about a group that pulled together,” said the 58-year-old Coutts. “Everything we went through made us stronger, brought us closer together, made them want to play for each other even more.”
The list of obstacles UMaine had to overcome to reach the final is a lengthy one. It began with a broken finger suffered by senior shortstop Felicia Lennon on the spring trip. She was sidelined for 21 games.
The Black Bears went 2-16 during a stretch on their grueling spring trip, during which they played five nationally ranked teams.
Later in the season Laurine German, who replaced Lennon at shortstop before moving to second base, suffered a broken hand that sidelined her late in the season and through the postseason.
Prior to the tournament, starting senior catcher Rachel Harvey, the team’s second-leading hitter at .311, and relief pitcher Annie Kennedy (two saves) were suspended for her involvement in an altercation at the Orono House of Pizza.
UMaine was already without backup catcher Ashley Tinsman (rotator cuff) and had to scramble to find a catcher for the tournament, eventually going with sophomore Maddie Decker.
Then all-league second-team pitcher and 2016 AE Pitcher of the Year Erin Bogdanovich injured her left (throwing) arm in the tourney-opening 9-1 win over Hartford. Junior Molly Flowers, after losing to Albany 8-2 in the winners bracket game on Friday, came back the same day and beat top seed and host Binghamton 2-1.
Following Saturday’s rainouts, Bogdanovich returned to shut out Albany 2-0 on Sunday before Albany triumphed 6-1 in the championship game.
UMaine led Albany 1-0 before a 3-hour, 7-minute rain delay forced Coutts to remove Flowers in favor of Bogdanovich. Albany scored four times.
“They were really rushing us to get going and Molly takes so much longer than Erin to warm up,”explained Coutts. “As it turned out, maybe Erin didn’t have enough time to warm up either.”
Coutts pointed out that UMaine scored only one run and stranded 10 runners.
He was pleased how players stepped up in the tourney.
Coutts will have a strong nucleus returning, including all of his pitchers and said, “there is no reason we can’t contend for a conference championship every year. That was my message to the girls.”
The entire outfield returns in All-AE first-team center fielder and leadoff hitter Rachel Carlson (.364-0 home runs-10 runs batted in, team-high 12 stolen bases); left fielder Erika Leonard (.235-3-22) and second-team right fielder Meghan Royle (.281-4-22).
Second-team third baseman Alyssa Derrick (.308-15-37) heads up the infield. Her 15 homers tied a school single-season record.
Derrick, Carlson and Royle were all-tourney picks.
German (.175-1-4) will get first crack at shortstop and Sarah Coyne (.196) returns at second, although Coutts said Royle may play some second to give the Black Bears more offense. Kristen Niland (.212-2-8) returns at first and Tinsman is a catcher along with incoming freshmen Hailey Perry of Hermon, Amanda Nee of Virginia and Makayla Livingston of New Hampshire.
Bogdanovich (7-12, 4.20 earned run average), Flowers (6-10, 4.45) and Kennedy (5-3, 4.05) are back for their final seasons with incoming freshmen Kyleigh O’Donnell and Lilly Volk of Scarborough supplying depth.
Versatile recruits Maddie Kimble from Ohio and Shanna Scribner from New Hampshire can play a variety of positions and former Bangor High standout Emily Gilmore will be a sophomore and could see some action in the outfield after being used mostly as a pinch-hitter this season.
Senior Julianna Ferguson, who missed the season with a knee injury, also is back.
The team’s 77 errors led to 55 unearned runs and that was Coutts’ biggest disappointment. He pointed out UMaine batted just .260 batting and had only 31 doubles compared to 77 in 2016.
“That’s all on me. We have to be better hitters. We also have to play better defense,” said Coutts.