Mattanawcook Academy pitcher Jennie Whitten delivers a pitch to the plate during the Class C North softball championship at Coffin Field in Brewer on June 14, 2022. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

When Mattanawcook Academy’s Jennie Whitten takes the circle for Saturday’s state Class C championship game against defending champ Hall-Dale, it is a testament to her perseverance and passion for softball.

She underwent right ankle surgery in January. It was her third surgery in a year and a half, previously having surgery on her left ankle and her knee.

Those three surgeries have cost her two soccer and two basketball seasons, and there was some doubt whether she would even be able to play softball this spring for the Lincoln school.

“But I had already been through a similar surgery on the other ankle so I had a better idea of when to push and how much my body could take,” said the 17-year-old Whitten, who lives in Enfield.

Mattanawcook, 19-1 and riding a 15-game winning streak, will face 18-0 Hall-Dale on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Coffin Field in Brewer.

Whitten didn’t let any of the surgeries prevent her from going to pitching guru Rick Roberts’ Sunday sessions in Old Town, even if it meant wearing a protective boot and being limited in what she could do.

“There were times I would just sit on a bucket and play catch with my dad [Jeff],” Whitten said.

Other times, she would stand in the circle and throw the ball without pushing off with her legs, focusing on her release point and technique, as Roberts explained.

“Most people would fold after going through what she’s gone through,” Roberts said. “Not her. She’s a tough kid. She pushed herself. She got past it. She’s one of those kids who works her butt off. She persevered. There’s no saying no to her. She’s going to do it.”

Roberts called Whitten a “softball junkie.”

She agreed.

“When I wake up, I want to play softball. It never gets old. I could play for six hours. I can’t get enough of it,” Whitten said. “When you really want something and you want it as badly as I do when it comes to softball, you know coming to practice even in a boot is going to make you better.”

“She is a very strong person,” said Mattanawcook Academy senior right fielder Rylee Bubar. “She is the core of our team. Without her, this wouldn’t be possible.”

Whitten turned in a gem in Tuesday’s 10-0 six-inning win over Orono in the Class C North regional championship game at Brewer’s Coffin Field.

She tossed a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts and no walks and she needed just 77 pitches, of which 56 were strikes. Orono hit just one ball out of the infield.

Mattanawcook Academy has allowed three runs or less in 13 of its 20 games and two or fewer in three of its four playoff wins.

“She is one of the best pitchers in Class C,” said Orono All-Penobscot Valley Conference Class C shortstop Lauryn Brown. “She has a really good riseball and quite a bit of speed.”

The riseball is a new pitch for Whitten.

“That’s been really crucial this year,” Whitten said. “I learned a lot about it while watching a YouTube video when I was in bed after my surgery. I started practicing the spins [for it].”

“That’s the hardest pitch to learn,” Roberts said. “But it’s a great pitch once they learn it.”

She also has a curve, a drop, a screwball and a change-up.

“My curve is my bread-and-butter pitch. And I use my change-up quite frequently. I learned a flip change-up, which is the hardest one to learn,” the 5-foot-9 Whitten said.

She loves being in the circle.

“I love the feeling of being in control and getting in a groove where I can put a ball wherever I want to and can command it,” Whitten said.

The hard-throwing Whitten and her father have countless hours of videotaped college softball games dating back to 2020 that they watch together and try to learn from.

Whitten said they will rewind the videotape to break down a play or a pitch so she can add it to her mental softball database.

In addition to her exploits in the circle, she is also one of their best hitters.

“She can hit, she can run the bases, she throws hard and she has multiple pitches that she can control,” said Mattanawcook Academy coach Dean Libbey. “And she’s a tough bird.”

She admits she is still in some discomfort and there have been some dark moments when she wasn’t sure she would be able to play and attain her eventual goal of playing softball in college.

But she said she has been blessed to have a great support group comprising her parents, Jeff and Cheryl, her coaches and her teammates, and Roberts.

Whitten said Roberts’ tough love approach was extremely beneficial.

He pushed her, but only as far as her doctors would allow.

“If I had someone coddling me every time I stumbled and fell, I wouldn’t have been able to push myself as much as I can now,” she said.  

She said helping Mattanawcook Academy win its first regional softball championship since 2001 was a “special feeling” and she is hoping to add a state title against Hall-Dale on Saturday.

“Being a pitcher can be tough but with my team, if I can get the ball across the plate, I know they’re going to make the plays behind me. And I have an amazing catcher in Ava Sutherland, who I have been pitching to for a long time,” said Whitten, who first got interested in the sport when she watched Jennie Finch pitch in the Olympics for Team USA.

“And my name is Jennie. I started pitching with Rick Roberts when I was 11. I love it,” she said.