For the University of Maine softball team, team success on the field starts by becoming a team off of it. Maine lost only one fourth-year and gained only one first-year from their conference champion 2016 team, leaving the Black Bears with an already tight-knit group to start the 2017 season.
“We hang out outside of softball almost every day,” fourth-year catcher Rachel Harvey said. “We’re around each other 24/7 so it’s not like we’re just a team on the field, we’re also best friends off the field.”
“You know if Maine softball is somewhere because there’s at least eight of us,” third-year outfielder Rachel Carlson added with a chuckle. “You know we’re there.”
The Black Bears have started the season slow, with a 5-17 record through their first 22 games, many of which have been played in tournaments hosted in warmer climates against southern teams who have been playing outdoor games all winter. Head Coach Mike Coutts knows that while playing well in early season games in the south is important, winning those games is not their ultimate goal.
“Your goal is always to win your conference. I mean, that’s the goal of the girls. I know they want to get back to the conference tournament and win the championship and so forth,” Coutts said. “But there’s a lot of things that have to take place before we get there and I think every day we’re just trying to build on that.”
Expectations are high for the Black Bears, who brought home the school’s first America East championship since 2004 last season, defeating Albany 14-1 in the championship game. But Coutts emphasizes the importance of taking it day by day and not getting hung up on the big picture.
“We’re trying to focus on what it takes to get to be a champion, not focus on what we need to be the champion,” Coutts said. “Every day we’re just trying to get a little better.”
The Black Bears’ sole departure from last season is Janelle Bouchard, the America East player of the year. Bouchard was the Black Bears’ catcher and leader and provided a consistent bat in the middle of the lineup. Bouchard struck out only seven times in 142 at-bats last season.
When asked if he was looking for any specific players to step up into leadership roles, Coutts noted that on such an experience-heavy team, there are a lot of players who can lead in their own ways.
“I think the girls that have experience all bring a different kind of leadership to the table,” Coutts said. “The girls that played a lot last year, you’re looking for them to step up and go to another level but I don’t think it’s one person’s job to be the leader overall. Everyone’s got a responsibility to help everybody around them be better.”
Harvey is a senior coming off a successful 2016 season at the plate (.345 batting average, 7 doubles, 5 home runs, 23 RBI’s). Look for her to build on that offensive output, while managing the Black Bears’ pitching staff from behind the plate. Harvey has an established rapport with the two third-years and two fourth-years on the pitching staff, but she stressed the importance of making sure both pitcher and catcher are on the same page come game time.
“I call my own game so it’s taken a little bit — for example, Erin [Bogdanovich]. Her ball just moves a ton,” Harvey said. “She’s a lefty, has a ton of spin on the ball. A lot of times you’re not quite sure because her ball could go one of three ways. So, for her we’ve just been playing around with her pitch sequence a little bit.”
Bogdanovich is coming off a 2016 season in which she was named America East Conference Pitcher of the year. She leads the team in innings pitched (46) and strikeouts (28) this season. Bogdanovich and third-year pitcher Molly Flowers (America East All-Conference Second Team) will lead the Black Bears, while third-year Annie Kennedy and fourth-year Nikki Misner round out the pitching staff.
“Molly I’ve caught for a while, I played with Molly in the same organization in high school too. So, I’ve always kind of known Molly’s strong pitches,” Harvey said. “And then Annie just kind of goes with the flow, throws strikes, and gets the job done.”
The Black Bears are without their shortstop, fourth-year Felicia Lennon, who broke the ring finger on her throwing hand in mid-March. Coutts hopes to have her back by mid-April. Coutts has had second-year infielders Alyssa Derek and Laurine German filling the position in the meantime.
Carlson leads the outfield from centerfield, where she posted a .935 fielding percentage with 39 put outs. She also hit .331 from the plate with 16 RBI’s. While some might be happy with that level of performance, Carlson sees a lot of areas for improvement.
“I want to try to produce more for the team, like more RBI’s,” Carlson said. “I’d like to get more than I had last year. I’d like to get up into the twenties or thirties, if possible.”
When asked about the team’s slow start, Carlson and Harvey acknowledged that they are a bit behind teams from the south in terms of outdoor play — and that they shouldn’t necessarily judge those games based on wins and losses alone.
“We just had to remind ourselves that like in Arizona we went 1-4, but we just had to remind ourselves that we’re still learning how to play together as a team,” Harvey said. “We have to remind ourselves that we’re not 40 games into the season like a lot of the other teams down there.”
Coutts recognizes that it’s to a team’s benefit to have been playing outside, but he refuses to allow that to become an excuse.
“Experience-wise and seeing the balls in the sky and being outside, I mean all that stuff plays to it,” Coutts said. “I think our big message to the girls is if you want that to be an excuse of why you didn’t win then it will be. We’ve just tried to say ‘it is what it is’ and let’s just go battle through it. We can’t change that they’ve got 50 at-bats and we’ve got five.”
Conference play doesn’t begin for another three weeks, so the Black Bears have plenty of time before the most meaningful games on their schedule come around. With a plethora of experience and great team chemistry, don’t discount the Black Bears’ chances to make a run in the America East tournament come May.