October 19, 2018
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Dominating pitching again carries North softball teams to state titles

History repeated itself on Saturday.

In 2012, dominating pitching performances led Old Town, Bucksport and Penobscot Valley of Howland to state softball championships.

Kendra Hayward hurled Old Town to a 4-1 win over Fryeburg Academy in the state Class B title game, Bucksport’s Cassidy Adams blanked Dirigo of Dixfield 2-0 in Class C and Kayla Dube of Penobscot Valley bested Richmond 4-2 in the Class D game.

Fast-forward five years to last Saturday, when Old Town’s McKenna Smith struck out 19 Fryeburg Academy hitters and fired a three-hitter in a 2-0 Class B title triumph, Katelin Saunders tossed a two-hitter with 13 strikeouts in Bucksport’s 2-1 victory over Madison in Class C and in Class D Leine McKechnie fashioned a no-hitter as Penobscot Valley ended Richmond’s 88-game winning streak dating back to the 2012 state title game 4-0.

McKechnie struck out 11 and helped herself out with a three-run homer.

And all three will be back next season. Smith and Saunders were juniors this season and McKechnie was a freshman.

Smith didn’t allow a run in four playoff games and struck out 54. She gave up only eight hits.

McKechnie surrendered just one run in four outings and had a 19-strikeout performance in the 3-0, eight-inning win over Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook in the regional final. And Saunders gave up only seven runs in four playoff games.

Old Town coach Jenn Plourde said Smith’s 19 strikeouts is the most she has witnessed in her six years as the coach.

All three pitchers use Ellsworth’s Rick Roberts as their pitching instructor. McKechnie also sees longtime pitching guru Bob Mercer of Bucksport.

“Rick drives it into the heads that they have to be calm and collected in the circle no matter what is happening,” said Plourde. “They have to be leaders. It has helped out a lot. It’s not only about pitching, it’s about being a good person and developing into a young lady their teammates can look up to.”

She also said Roberts emphasizes maximizing their talent and that he “really cares about each and every one of them.

“He goes to see them play as much as he can,” added Plourde, who works with Roberts at the Sluggers Indoor Training Facility in Brewer.

“It was pretty exciting. I’m proud of them,” said Roberts, who downplayed his role in their development. “I can’t take any credit. They’ve worked hard. They’ve put the time in. They’ve earned it.

“They’re very tough, mentally, in the circle,” he added.

Roberts has all of his pitchers establish realistic goals when they start with him on Sundays in October in Ellsworth.

He said pitchers tend to get “hung up on speed” but he helps them realize that movement and location are just as important.

“Not every kid can throw 55 [miles per hour],” explained Roberts.

When it comes to control, Robert’s motto is, “You have to be able to throw a ball when you want to and be able to throw a strike when you have to.”

Roberts said Smith made a remarkable turnaround from a year ago as she developed tremendous poise in the circle and had better control.

He noted that when Smith got in trouble with runners on first and second and nobody out in the sixth inning of a scoreless game in the eventual 1-0, eight-inning Class B North final win over Oceanside of Rockland/Thomaston, she flashed a “little smile” toward her dugout and then calmly pitched out of the jam.

He doubted if she would have pitched out of it a year ago.

He said McKechnie is a “special kid for a freshman” and that Saunders is a fierce competitor who gets irritated when she gives up a hit.

“She doesn’t want to give up anything and that’s what it takes to be a good pitcher,” said Roberts, who also marveled at McKechnie’s three-run homer.

“The fence was 225 feet away and she cleared it by 30 feet,” said Roberts who likes the fact she is also getting instruction from Mercer.

“He’s a legend. It’s awesome,” said Roberts.

All three of them have really developed their spins through hard work, he said.

Bucksport coach Mike Carrier said Saunders threw too many strikes a year ago.

“She was too accurate. She threw too many pitches over the middle of the plate,” explained Carrier. “She has worked real hard on hitting the corners. And she throws harder.”

In addition to the pitchers, all three teams will return a healthy nucleus with which to defend their state titles. They will each have at least six starters back.

Bucksport will be gunning for its fifth state championship in seven years, Old Town will be seeking its fourth title in seven seasons and third in a row and the Howlers will be looking for a third crown in seven years.

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