The Stearns High School softball team appeared in its first state championship game last year but fell victim to a Richmond team that captured its third straight Class D crown and extended its winning streak to 52 games in the process. Richmond beat the Millinocket-based Minutemen 9-4.

The Minutemen are hoping to use the experience they gained last year to capture the state championship this season, and they will enter the playoffs next week as the top seed in Class D North courtesy of a 14-2 record. Their only losses came at the hands of Class C rival Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.

Another date with Richmond could be in the future as the Bobcats are the top seed in Class D South with a 15-0 record that has expanded their winning streak to 67 games.

The Minutemen returned virtually their entire team from a year ago, and they have outscored their opponents 209-34 in their 14 victories.

Their loss to Richmond has served as motivation.

Fifth-year head coach Nick Cullen and his players feel they are better this season.

“Our hitting is so much better, one-through-nine. There are no holes in our lineup,” said pitcher Jessicca Girsa, one of just two seniors on the team. “We’re definitely confident, but we’re not cocky. We’re taking things one step at a time. Our goal is to win the states.”

“We’re more than ready to compete for a state title. We’ve been preparing since day one,” said first baseman Lauren Jamo, the other senior.

Girsa and Jamo said the team has focused heavily on offense, and volunteer assistant Barry Levitt has done an exceptional job working on their hitting.

“He’s amazing. He really knows the game of softball,” said Jamo.

Everybody in the lineup is hitting at least .390.

Girsa is in the leadoff spot and is hitting over .500.

“She has struck out just once over the past two years,” said Cullen.

Jamo hits second and has overcome a slow start to hit .440 with 34 RBIs.

Second baseman Cassidy McLeod leads the team in homers (8) and RBIs (42), and the cleanup hitter is shortstop Audrey Dunstan, who is over .500 and a power threat.

Left fielder Abby Russell and right fielder Grace Farrington hit fifth and sixth and are around the .400 mark. Third baseman Madeline Morrison is at .525 in the seventh spot, and Cullen said she has been a valuable rally starter.

Peighton Ingersoll is the designated hitter and is near .400 out of the eighth spot, and speedy Emma Alley has made the transition from designated hitter to center field and hits in the ninth hole.

Angela Guy is a top-notch catcher, said Cullen.

With the exception of Girsa, Jamo and sophomore Ingersoll, all of the others are juniors.

The outfield defense is vastly improved, and Russell, Alley and Farrington cover a lot of ground, said Cullen.

“The defense has been phenomenal,” said a grateful Girsa, who is 14-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 92 innings.

“I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” said Girsa.

Cullen added that the team is extremely close-knit and has a team dinner every Thursday night.