In this 2017 file photo, University of Maine's Alyssa Derrick lays out to snag a ball down the third base line during their softball practice at the University of Maine in Orono. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

The University of Maine softball team has had a nice little run going.

The Black Bears won the America East Tournament and the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament two years ago and reached the league championship game a year ago only to lose to Albany 6-1.

And UMaine was without starting catcher and second-leading hitter Rachel Harvey (.311 batting average) and pitcher Annie Kennedy (5-3, team-low 4.05 ERA) in the tournament because they got suspended for an off-field incident right before the tourney. Kennedy had the team’s lowest ERA (4.05) among the regulars.

UMaine wound up 19-25 a year ago.

Following a 9-14 start in non-conference games this season, third-year head coach Mike Coutts is upbeat about his team even though he said they haven’t been getting enough clutch hits and they made 28 errors during their recent nine-day, 13-game spring trip to Florida.

“It is what it is,” said Coutts. “I would have liked to have won more games but we didn’t. Hopefully, what we learned from this will help us win our conference. That’s our ultimate goal.

“We did enough good things in Florida for me to believe we’re going to get better at what we do,” said Coutts who noted that the Bears won five of their last eight games.

“This was our first year with the one-week spring break instead of two weeks so we didn’t have time to work on anything,” said Coutts. “We crammed 13 games into nine days. So sometimes, if we had a bad day on a Tuesday, it would snowball into Wednesday.”

He said making 28 errors in 13 games is “uncharacteristic” for a UMaine team but he expects his team to rebound.

UMaine has seven returning starters but Coutts has had to rearrange his pitching staff after 2016 America East Pitcher of the Year Erin Bogdanovich was lost for the season due to a back injury. Bogdanovich was an all-conference second-team pick a year ago.

Senior Kennedy has emerged as the ace as fellow senior Molly Flowers, an America East second-team selection in 2016, has struggled so far this season.

Kennedy is 4-3 with a sparkling 1.59 ERA. She has walked only five while striking out 41 in 52 ⅔ innings.

Freshmen Lilly Volk (1-1, 3.34) of Scarborough and Kyleigh O’Donnell (2-5, 5.44) have shown promise and will see plenty of duty and Coutts is hoping Flowers can overcome her tough start (1-5, 7.25) to put together a solid season.

“One of the good things about Annie is she can pitch back-to-back games (on consecutive days) and we play three-game series so she can start two of the games,” said Coutts who added that the hard-throwing O’Donnell threw “really well in the second half of the trip.”

He is taking a “staff approach” to each game this season instead of having one pitcher throw a complete game.

The Black Bears are hitting .232 but Coutts said he anticipates several hitters to snap out of their early-season slumps.

Senior center fielder Rachel Carlson, a first-team selection last season, has picked up where she left off. She is leading the team in hitting at .351 and she has driven in seven runs while scoring 11 times, which is tied for the team-high.

Carlson hit .353 a year ago.

Junior Decker, who replaced the suspended Harvey behind the plate for the tournament last season, is the starting catcher and is hitting .306 with a team-leading two homers and 15 runs batted in.

The 15 RBIs tie her with junior third baseman Alyssa Derrick.

Junior Laurine German from South Portland has been a pleasant surprise as a first-year starter at shortstop, replacing the graduated Felicia Lennon.

She is hitting .284 and has scored 11 runs while driving in two.

“She’s the most athletic player on the team. She has really come a long way,” said Coutts.

The other returning starters include senior first baseman Kristen Niland (.254-0 homers-5 RBIs), team-high four doubles), senior right fielder Erika Leonard (.227-0-6), Derrick (.210-2-15), junior second baseman-DH Meghan Royle (.190-0-2) and senior second baseman Sarah Coyne (.174).

Derrick hit .290 a year ago and led the team with 14 homers and 35 RBIs en route to a second team all-conference berth. Royle, a .289 hitter in 2017, was also a second-team choice.

“Alyssa is, historically, a slow starter. I’m not worried about her,” said Coutts.

Freshmen Amanda Nee (.250), a catcher-first baseman and utility players Maddie Kimble (.125) and Shannon Scribner (.103) have each played in at least seven games. Senior infielder Faythe Goins (.143) has been an exceptional pinch-hitter and sophomore outfielder Emily Gilmore (.087), a former Bangor High standout, has earned more playing time than a year ago.

Junior Ashley Tinsman from Cape Elizabeth has been sidelined by an injury and freshmen Hailey Perry from Hermon and M.K. Livingston are looking for their first hit. Senior Julianna Ferguson is also hitless so far.

Coutts, whose Black Bears were picked to finish second in the conference, said his team has to play solid, all-around softball to win.

“We aren’t good enough, skill-wise, to have an off game and win. We’ve got to play good team softball and execute the fundamentals to win,” he said.

UMaine will open its conference play at Hartford for three games next weekend.

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