While making the 540-mile bus trip from Binghamton, New York to Orono after being eliminated from the America East softball tournament, University of Maine head coach Mike Coutts told his players, “We’re not driving home from Binghamton next year without a championship.
“It’s too long of a ride,” said Coutts, whose team won the title in 2016.
The Black Bears went 2-2 in the recent tournament and were ousted by Stony Brook 2-0.
The setback was a microcosm of UMaine’s season.
It was the ninth time in 47 games the Black Bears were shut out, the 18th time they had scored one run or fewer and the 25th time they were held to two runs or less.
UMaine hit a league-low .230, 22 points lower than sixth-place University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and averaged an AE-worst 3.0 runs per game. Their 16 homers ranked sixth.
The Black Bears had returned all but two positional starters off the 2017 team that reached the AE title game and hit .259 with 29 homers and averaged 5.26 runs.
“We had some players get in bad funks early and they struggled to get out of it,” Coutts said. “We didn’t get things done when we needed to (with runners in scoring position).”
The former UMaine baseball captain and assistant coach took responsibility for the offensive woes. “We introduced a new hitting style in the fall and after buying into it during the fall and winter, they went back to their old ways when they struggled this spring instead of staying with it,” Coutts said.
He brought an instructor from USA Softball to Orono to work with UMaine players who tried to get them to shorten their swings and limit their body and back foot rotations.
“I will make sure we hit better next year, no question about that,” Coutts said.
Third baseman Alyssa Derrick and second baseman Meghan Royle snapped out of their slumps in the tourney. They will be counted upon to produce more consistently as seniors next season.
Derrick (.230, 8 homers, 34 runs batted in) hit two game-winning homers with five RBIs en route to all-tournament recognition. Derrick batted .308 with 15 homers in 2017.
Royle wound up at .200 on the season, 81 points lower than a year ago.
Coutts must replace two-time all-conference outfielders Rachel Carlson (.312-0 HR-12 RBIs) in center and Erika Leonard (.275-0-14) in right along with all-conference pitcher Annie Kennedy (11-8, league-best 1.52 ERA), first baseman Kristen Niland (.205-1-13), second baseman Sarah Coyne (.192) and pitcher Molly Flowers (3-7, 6.35), a 2016 All-AE second-teamer.
Junior shortstop Laurine German of South Portland was one of the success stories of the season, hitting .307 en route to all-conference second-team honors as a first-year starter at shortstop. She went 7-for-13 in the tournament.
Junior Maddie Decker (.256-4-24) will be back behind the plate. Freshmen Amanda Nee (.200) and Maddie Kimble (.125) will get a crack at the first base job and sophomore Emily Gilmore (.106) of Bangor and freshman speedster Shanna Scribner (.102) showed improvement while platooning in left but will have to make significant strides at the plate.
All-AE rookie team pitcher Kyleigh O’Donnell (6-8, 3.24 ERA) anchors the pitching staff after holding opponents to a .221 average.
“She was what we expected her to be but earlier than we thought she would be,” said Coutts. “She is a tough competitor. She’s ready to be our No. 1.”
He also expects hardworking Scarborough freshman Lilly Volk (1-2, 3.37) to be better next year.
Next season, Coutts’ fourth as the head coach, will have his largest freshman class, at 10.
“And for the first time, we will have speed,” said Coutts, referring to outfielders Brianna Neely, Kya Enos and Emma Larke and utility player/pitcher Grace McGouldrick of Gorham.
UMaine welcomes infielders in Amanda McBurnie, power-hitting Rebecca Findley and Kelby Drews along with the versatile Keely Clark. Gabrielle Siciliano and Emily Reid are pitchers with a lot of potential.
“I’m really excited for next year,” Coutts said.
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