The University of Maine’s softball team has taken its lumps in the early going during its non-conference games.
First-year head coach Jordan Fitzpatrick knows the non-conference games are meant to prepare her Black Bears for America East play and she is optimistic that her team will be ready when it ventures to Stony Brook for its first three league games April 2-4.
But UMaine, which is currently 2-19, will have to make it through six more non-conference games leading up to the league opener. The team played 12 games against seven different opponents during their spring trip to Utah last week.
They were 11-22 a year ago and were picked sixth in this year’s preseason poll.
“We were in most of our games but we would have one bad inning. When you go from practicing in [Mahaney Dome] to playing outside, there is a reality check,” Fitzpatrick said.
“We’ve played pretty good competition and those teams in Utah took advantage of the opportunities we gave them if our pitchers missed their spots or a pitch didn’t move as much as it should have,” she said. “Having a couple of days to practice back here will be good for us.”
The pitching staff is relatively inexperienced as workhorse Kyleigh O’Donnell has graduated.
Her 113 ⅔ innings of work last year were more than the rest of the staff combined.
The team earned-run average is a lofty 7.87 but Fitzpatrick said all four of the pitchers have improved.
Senior Emily Reid threw 92 ⅔ innings as a freshman but had thrown just 18 ⅓ in 2020 and ’21 combined although 2020 was an abbreviated nine-game season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senior Gabbie Siciliano and junior Caitlyn Fallon had just 58 ⅓ and 48 ⅓ career innings, respectively, entering this season and Alexandra Gruitch is a freshman.
They have allowed 216 hits in 126 ⅓ innings and have struck out only 58 but they have done a decent job keeping the ball in the park, allowing just 12 homers. They have walked 79 hitters.
Siciliano’s 5.97 ERA is the best of the four.
Opponents are hitting .369 against them.
“We don’t have a dominant pitcher so it is going to be more of a staff mentality, which is fine. Everybody is accepting their roles. We will see who works well with who,” Fitzpatrick said.
The defense hasn’t done the pitching staff any favors with 47 errors leading to 42 unearned runs.
But Fitzpatrick is confident once the team gets more practice time outside, the defense will tighten up.
Fitzpatrick said her team has swung the bats pretty well “but our biggest problem is we’re leaving too many runners on base. We need to be more efficient driving runners in. We’re doing a good job getting on base.”
The veteran lineup includes left fielder and lead-off hitter Brianna Neely, who is hitting .333 with six stolen bases; catcher Keely Clark (.310-1 home run-9 runs batted in), 3B Jasmine Gray (.292-0-5), SS Kelby Drews (.291-2-6), 1B Izzy Nieblas (.288-3-11) and CF Kya Enos (.237-2-10). Freshman designated hitter Gabby Papushka (.281-3-11) has made an immediate impact.
Gray was an All-America East second team selection a year ago.
Enos has three triples, four doubles and five stolen bases.
Papushka, a native of Whiterock, British Columbia, leads the team in doubles (8), total bases (35), hits (18) and slugging percentage (.547) and shares the lead in homers and RBIs.
Mariah Pearson (.225-0-6) starts in right field and freshman Katie Jo Moery (.132-0-1) is the starting second baseman as Gorham senior Grace McGouldrick (.208-0-1) continues to recover from an upper body injury.
Sophomore catcher Kennedy Priest (.348) and freshmen Rylee Kent (.235) and Kyrah Haba-Dailey (.182) have also seen some playing time along with seniors Rebecca Findley (.100-1-5) and Emma Larke, who is looking for her first hit of the season.
Senior infielder Amanda McBurnie hasn’t played yet due to injury.
Fitzpatrick, a mother of three who assisted Mike Coutts at UMaine for six seasons before Coutts left to coach the Colorado School of Mines, said being a head coach is different.
“It has been an adjustment for me as well as for the girls. The girls have been great. They have truly embraced the family aspect and have done a lot of positive things. It just hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard yet,” she said. “At some point, those things will pay off.”
The 32-year-old former UMaine softball player said she and her players are excited to be getting a new artificial turf surface on the field and other improvements to the facility for next fall thanks to the $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation for upgrades to the athletic facilities.
“We’ll be able to get outside earlier,” she said, adding that it will also help recruiting.
All six eligible teams will qualify for the America East tournament in Binghamton, New York, from May 11-14. Stony Brook is ineligible for the tournament because it is leaving the conference for the Colonial Athletic Association after this season and an America East bylaw prohibits schools from playing in championships if they are departing the conference.