When it comes to filling voids created by the loss of graduated seniors, the quantity isn’t daunting for University of Maine head softball coach Deb Smith.
For Smith, the trick will be replacing the quality of those departed players as the Black Bears gear up to make a run at their first conference playoff appearance in four years.
That run starts in earnest Thursday as the Black Bears open their season against Idaho State in St. George, Utah at the Red Desert Classic three-day tournament.
The Bears lost three starters from a 32-22 team to graduation (first baseman Courtney Gingrich, second baseman Ashley Waters, and starting pitcher Jenna Balent), but the rippling effect of those losses may lead to new faces at as many as six positions.
“We’ve talked to some of our returning veterans about filling some holes because we’re kind of reformulating our defense,” said Smith. “The infielders will get a lot of work because we have pitchers who will give up a lot of ground balls.”
The changes may not be subtle either as Smith is considering switching senior speedster Alexis Souhlaris, a three-year starter in center field, to second base and/or shortstop.
“She doesn’t have the strongest arm, but she gets to a lot of balls,” Smith said. “Our challenge is solidifying the defense overall because of moving some people in from other positions in the outfield.”
The toughest task may be replacing Waters from a defensive standpoint.
“She was one of the best second basemen, defensively, I’ve ever seen play,” said Smith.
Other possible second basemen are sophomore Margaret Hilton, a transfer from the University of Vermont who can also play outfield and sophomore Brynn Davis of Winslow.
Gingrich was a steadying force and inspiring presence.
“She wasn’t necessarily our best fielder, but you knew when she was on the field,” said Smith. “She was such an emotional leader for us.”
The top candidates to replace her are junior Kirstin Allen, who is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, and freshman Hilary Kane.
After a slow start, Balent was almost automatic every time out en route to a 14-5 record with a 1.91 ERA.
Pitching-wise, the Bears have plenty of experience back in the rotation with sophomore Ashley Kelley (7-7, 3.03 ERA) of Hermon, Souhlaris (6-6, 2.76), much-improved senior Christine McGivney, and some competition from freshman Beth Spoehr. Senior Cayleigh Montano (4-2) returns after a solid season of relief work and could join junior Jordan McLain of Brewer in the bullpen.
Offensively, Smith sees a lineup that can put more pressure on defenses with both short game and long ball potential, but more so from its speed and aggressive baserunning.
“It’ll translate into an ability to just fly around the bases and be much different that way than last year’s team, which pretty much had to play station to station, was,” Smith said.
The outfield has plenty of competition for all spots with Souhlaris’ potential move and senior Erin Iandoli not playing this season due to the demands of her clinicals as she works on earning her nursing degree.
Junior Kali Burnham is back, but maybe not in right field. She may switch to left. That leaves sophomore Lindsey Jenkins, junior Cassie Hodgson, catcher Kristen Calvetti, and freshman Chelsea Soule of Chelsea to compete for the other two spots.
The only positional locks are junior Terren Hall of Bucksport at third base and senior Stephanie George at catcher. Senior Whitney Spangler is the backup catcher, but could also see time in the middle infield.
“We’re definitely further ahead than I expected us to be at this point because of our inexperience,” said Smith. “We’re putting pressure on them to try different things, but these changes will give us so much more depth and versatility.
“I’ve got a lot of depth at each position so I won’t hesitate to put pressure on them and use someone else behind them.”