A softball player swings a bat during a game
Keely Clark of the University of Maine takes a swing during an April 2021 softball game. Credit: Ronnie Gillis / UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine’s softball team had a forgettable regular season.

The Black Bears finished at 8-35 overall and in last place in America East with a 4-12 conference record.

But the sixth-seeded Black Bears are hoping to turn a frustrating regular season into a memorable post-season beginning Wednesday when they take on third seed UMass Lowell (26-18, 10-7) in the first round of the six-team double-elimination conference tournament in Vestal, N.Y. 

Game time is 1:30 p.m.

Host Binghamton (20-21, 7-8), the fourth seed, and No. 5 Hartford (16-27, 5-13) will open the tourney at 11 a.m.

The losers of the first two games will play at 4 p.m.

Top seed and defending two-time champ the University of Maryland Baltimore County (28-10, 12-6) and No. 2 Albany (23-15, 10-6) received first-round byes and will play a survivor on Thursday.

Stony Brook (31-16, 10-6) isn’t eligible to play in the tournament because it is leaving the league for the Colonial Athletic Association and a league by-law prohibits a departing team from participating in the league championships.

“We talk about there being three seasons: the preseason games, our conference games and the tournament,” said first-year UMaine head coach Jordan Fitzpatrick.

“Our season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go but the playoffs are a brand new season. So we’re excited to turn the chapter and see what’s next,” she added. “Crazy things happen at the tournament. It’s anyone’s game.”

Fitzpatrick’s team has turned in some noteworthy performances against the best teams in the conference.

UMaine beat UMBC 8-3 after losing to the Retrievers 1-0 and 3-1 in nine innings. They also beat Stony Brook, Binghamton and UMass Lowell.

“We’re confident. We feel we can beat any of these teams,” she said. “We may have lost a lot of games but we competed and didn’t give up.”

She added that in her seven seasons at UMaine, including six as an assistant under Mike Coutts, this is the most “evenly matched tournament I’ve seen.”

For the first time in over a month, UMaine will have a healthy lineup.

Third baseman Jasmine Gray has missed 11 games due to injury but she will be back. She is hitting .305 with two homers and 15 runs batted in. Gray, a junior who has nine doubles, and senior shortstop Kelby Drews (.305-4-26) are the top hitters, average-wise, among the regulars.

Drews was named an All-America East second team selection on Tuesday along with senior second baseman Grace McGouldrick (.244, 3 triples, 7 RBIs) from Gorham. It is Drews’ second postseason award and McGouldrick’s first.

Senior catcher Keely Clark (.295-2-20), junior first baseman Izzy Nieblas (.293-4-21), freshman designated player Gabby Papushka (.267-5-25, 12 doubles) and senior center fielder Kya Enos (.256-3-14, 4 triples, 16 stolen bases) have been the other catalysts.

Papushka, who is from Whiterock, British Columbia, leads the team in homers and doubles. She was chosen to the All-Rookie Team along with catcher Rylee Kent (.211).

Papushka missed the season-ending three-game series against Hartford due to COVID protocols but is back.

Drews (3.97 grade-point average) and Gray (3.90) were chosen to the All-Academic team. It was the third time for Drews and second time for Gray.

The pitching staff has really struggled as shown by its 5.79 earned run average and the fact opponents are hitting .322 against the UMaine pitchers.

“But they have done a better job keeping the team in games lately and controlling hitters much better than they had been. They have cut down on their walks and hit batters,” Fitzpatrick said.

Either senior Emily Reid (3-10, 5.29 ERA) or junior Caitlyn Fallon (3-5, 4.51) will start against UMass Lowell.