BREWER — Last spring, handicapping the Eastern Maine Class A ranks in softball was quite simple.
Bangor, Skowhegan and then the pack.
But that likely won’t be the case this season, and while the defending regional champion Rams and Indians will still field strong teams, a lot of contenders are hungry to vie in what is expected to be a wide-open race to the top of the Eastern Maine softball mountain.
“I think everybody’s going to be pretty good this year. Everybody wants it as bad as we do,” said Brewer senior catcher Jordan Nickerson.
The Witches are expected to be one of those contending squads, and after fielding a young team in 2010 that was ousted by Cony of Augusta in the quarterfinals, coach Skip Estes’ club has been even more focused this preseason.
“A lot of them put a lot of time into their game this winter, they’ve come in really focused,” said Estes.
Brewer features a talented senior class led by Nickerson behind the plate and the lefthanded Emily Cox in the circle, along with outfielder Kelcey Simpson and classmates Missy Thompson and Morgan Haradon.
“The girls have some high goals for themselves,” said Estes, whose corps of underclassmen includes sophomore Alexa Grindle and junior Kelly Hatt.
Cox saw some pitching duties last spring behind the now-graduated Amanda Ryan, and feels ready to go.
“I’ve just been working on a lot of my breaking pitches and trying to perfect those,” Cox said. “I feel pretty confident about everything, and I think I’ve done as much as I can to get ready for the season.”
Simpson has been pleased with the attitude and focus the Witches have been exhibiting in practice.
“I think we’ve been a lot more serious taking everything like it’s a game,” Simpson said. “The younger girls have really stepped up.”
While expectations in Brewer are high as always, the pack always starts with the defending champion, which is Bangor in this case.
The Rams did graduate six starters from that team that posted an 18-2 record and reached the first state championship game in program history, but coach Don Stanhope’s club still has its championship swagger.
“We lost a lot of talent, but we also gained a couple new faces that are really going to help the team a lot,” said Bangor senior Hannah Lust.
Lust and classmates Kim Jordan, Sadie Redman and Taylor Lewis are expected to be key contributors, along with Jade Baumrind, June Candland and Mel Howard, who moved to the Queen City from Gardner, Mass., over the summer.
“We’ve got nine returning players from last year’s group so they’re familiar with the work ethic and everything it takes to get to that level,” Stanhope said.
Both Stanhope and Estes feel that Cony will be the team to beat this spring.
“I think Cony could run the table, I really do,” Estes said. “They’re that good.”
Bangor certainly found that out in the playoffs last spring, beating Cony 9-5 in a semifinal game that was closer than the score indicated.
“They had one senior last year. They came up and played us very tough in the playoffs,” Stanhope said. “(Coach) Rocky (Gaslin) always gets them ready to play.”
Cony also features a talented lefthander in junior Emily Soule, who is also one of the Rams’ top hitters.
Skowhegan, which has played in three of the last four EM championship games and has won two of them, is led by senior Whitney Jones at shortstop.
Bangor’s Lewis is also eager for the season opener.
“I can’t wait. I definitely feel better, I’m more ready than I was before,” she said. “I’m just excited to get out there.”
Bangor also knows that last year is completely in the rearview mirror.
“You can’t think of last year, so we don’t get caught up on that,” Jordan said. “We just have to focus on this year and get as far as we can.”
Both Bangor and Brewer will open their seasons on April 20, with Bangor hosting Lawrence of Fairfield and Brewer traveling to Hampden.
Teams eager to get outside
Early last week, it appeared that the state’s baseball and softball teams would be headed outdoors, with temperatures climbing into the 50s throughout the week.
But Mother Nature had other ideas, dumping a snowstorm on the area on April Fool’s Day, and players weren’t laughing.
“We were thinking it was going to be nice and we were going to play (outside) really soon, now all of a sudden it snowed,” said Jordan.
There’s only so much teams can do confined to a gymnasium in terms of working on hitting and fly balls.
“In here we’re limited to just the cage, but we do what we can,” Nickerson said.
It can be difficult from a pitching standpoint too, but Cox doesn’t let it get the best of her.
“I’ve just got to work with what I’ve got,” she said. “It is better outside, but I’ve just got to go with it.”
Both the Witches and Rams may get a chance to play outside soon, as they’re scheduled to attend a round-robin in South Portland on April 16, where they’ll face the likes of the defending Class A state champion Red Riots and Cony.
“We’re actually traveling down with Brewer, so that’ll be fun to get to know them on their trip down,” said Redman.