Sarah Duncklee of the University of Maine at Presque Isle softball team throws to teammate Melanee Terry during the Owls trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, earlier this season. Credit: Courtesy of UMPI Athletics

The University of Maine at Presque Isle softball team has developed a special camaraderie. The Owls have had plenty of time to work on it while riding the bus for approximately 6,754 miles this season.

That included a 2,524-mile trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The Owls will make at least one more trip this spring when they travel 213 miles to Colby College in Waterville for Friday’s 11:30 a.m. North Atlantic Conference playoff game against Husson University of Bangor.

“If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is,” Husson University senior center fielder Olivia Smith said.

UMPI (15-13 overall, 7-5 NAC) is the No. 3 seed in the four-team, double-elimination event while defending champ and No. 2 seed Husson is 21-9 and 11-1, respectively.

Top seed Thomas (22-8, 11-1) faces No. 4 University of Maine at Farmington (14-18, 6-6) in the 9 a.m. opener.

“Three to four hours [one way] is nothing,” UMPI junior shortstop Sarah Duncklee of Kearny, Arizona, said. She described the players as sisters.

“We’re all super close. There is so much bonding on the bus,” sophomore pitcher Brookelynn Garcia of Torrance, California, said.

One of their favorite ways to kill time is singing at the back of the bus where the speakers are located.

“A lot of us think we have good voices,” junior catcher Delanie Strout of Greene said. “But we should really stick to softball.”

“It drives [head coach Sara Shaw] insane,” Garcia said with a laugh.

Strout noted that because they spend so much time on the bus they have to make it fun. The women also watch movies and play games.

Shaw has players from 12 states on her roster. They hail from California, Texas, Nebraska, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

The players enjoy sharing information about their backgrounds and their home states and, in some cases, dispelling stereotypes.

“When I first came here, everyone asked me if I was a surfer,” Garcia said. “I told them you would never catch me on a surfboard.”

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Being an NCAA Division III institution, UMPI does not offer athletic scholarships. And Shaw said she was upfront with the recruits about the challenges they would face playing and studying in Presque Isle.

The Owls didn’t play a home game this season and didn’t have their first outdoor home practice until Wednesday night.

“[I told them] they would have to give more than student-athletes at other schools. But they liked the challenge,” said Shaw, who is stepping down later this month to become the athletic director at Thomas College.

“It’s a small campus and everybody is so nice,” Garcia said. “It’s beautiful. I love it here.”

“It’s the right fit for me,” said Duncklee, who played two years of junior college softball in Arizona.

Garcia said by having to practice on the gym floor, it forces them to really focus on the fundamentals of the game.

The Owls played four “home” games at the Mahaney Dome on the University of Maine campus in Orono.

“A lot of the out-of-state girls from Arizona, Florida and California had never had the opportunity to play inside a dome,” Strout said.

After playing an independent schedule with even more travel, the Owls joined the NAC this season.

“The cool part is you get to establish rivalries with conference opponents and we’ve never had that before,” Shaw said. “Now there’s some consistency moving forward.”

“It’s definitely a step forward for us,” Garcia said. “Being in the NAC, we have a chance to prove who we are.”

UMPI had a 73-44 record in its previous three seasons and earned at-large berths in three United States Collegiate Athletic Association national tournaments. The Owls’ highest finish was ninth.

UMPI has been paced this season by Californian first baseman Melanee Terry (.518, 23 runs batted in, 18 doubles), Duncklee (.463, 4 home runs, 35 RBI), center fielder Jordan Hansen from Nebraska (.342-1 HR-14 RBI, 11 stolen bases) and Presque Isle native Jordi Legassie (.330, 12 SB), who was chosen as the school’s female senior athlete of the year. She also plays soccer.

Garcia (10-7, 4.68 earned run average) and Marissa Valdivia-Reagle of Seattle (5-2, 3.37) are the Owls’ one-two punch in the circle.

“Our big focus is to just play hard and let the chips fall where they will,” Shaw said.