ORONO — If it’s true that losing builds character, Hannah Hill figured she had as much character as she needed, thank you for asking.
The Fryeburg native had returned to Maine, reuniting with her former pitching coach, to help revive the Black Bears’ softball program.
Her junior season was filled with what can be politely called “growth opportunities.” In the harsh world of college athletics, they’re called losses. And there were 39 of them last spring for Maine.
“Last year was incredible for our mental toughness. You can’t go through a year like that and not grow. Every loss is a battle and we fought really hard,” said Hill, a right-hander who transferred from Seton Hall and finished 3-14 with a 4.29 ERA in her Maine debut.
“After our year, we came back and I knew I was going to have to work. But I knew that not many people thought we were going to be capable of much, and it gives you a little chip on your shoulder. Sometimes that’s a good thing to have. Because it does drive you. It makes you want to stand out there and say, ‘We can compete. We’re here and we mean business.’ ”
It’s not business as usual for Maine this spring. The Black Bears carried a 12-9 record into Saturday’s doubleheader at Albany. Hill was 5-1 with a 3.00 ERA. Alexis Bogdanovich, another native daughter who has made her way back home, was 3-3 with a 2.17 ERA. A team that averaged 2.5 runs per game a year ago is scoring 4.3 per contest this year.
“We have the same attitude, the same drive,” Hill said. “Because we always competed. We never play to the level of the other team. We always play to our own level. And this year that level has gone up.”
It’s a positive first step, said Lynn Coutts, in her third year as coach. Her first team went 17-30-1, then the Black Bears fell to 8-39 last year. But her recruiting and teaching is starting to take hold. This year’s team has started five freshmen on occasion. Landing Hill and Bogdanovich, who played her first season at St. Anselm, also has been a boon.
“We win the games this year that we should win,” Coutts said. “We’re very unselfish. Our approach now at the plate is, you’ve got to move a runner. It’s not about batting average, it’s about quality at-bats, and what are you doing to help your teammates.”
Maine swept Massachusetts-Lowell last weekend, running its winning streak to four. Kristen Koslosky went 4 for 6, Bogdanovich struck out 10 to earn one win, and freshman Felicia Lennon had a home run in each game.
The schedule gets tougher, but the team is clearly better-equipped to handle it. Coutts’ short-term goal is to at least qualify for the conference playoffs, something the Black Bears didn’t achieve a year ago.
Coutts and her husband, Mike, who is her assistant, were star athletes at Maine. They returned as coaches, she said, because of how much Black Bear athletics means to them. Lynn works with the pitchers and Mike with the hitters. They carry a good-natured competition into the dugout.
“He’ll say, ‘OK, I got you two runs, now you’ve got to stop it there,’ ” Lynn Coutts said.
“We live this life together, on the field, off the field. He doesn’t talk as much off the field after a loss as much as I want to fix things. So that’s kind of the dynamic that we work on. But it’s very, very important to me. And I tell the kids, ‘This is so much bigger than you, this is so much bigger than me. We represent the whole state.’”
Bogdanovich grew up in South Portland and attended some softball clinics at Maine. But she wasn’t recruited by former Black Bears coach Deb Smith. After the transition to Coutts, she leaped at the chance to play at the Division I level in her home state.
Bogdanovich, used mostly in relief a year ago, sported an 0-9 record. It took her half the season to realize she belonged in Division I, she said.
“I’m a lot more focused this year. Last year was kind of a shock. I think initially I was a little nervous,” Bogdanovich said. “This year I have a lot more confidence in myself and am able to take one pitch at a time. That’s my mentality.”
Bogdanovich’s younger sister, Erin, followed her to Orono. Also a pitcher, the freshman will redshirt this year. The focus on getting in-state talent is clear.
Hill, at the end of her college career, believes she’s witnessing the beginning of a turnaround. As a child she dreamed of playing for Maine, but those hopes faded as she went to Seton Hall instead.
Coutts, who has been her personal pitching coach since age 13, was instrumental in drawing her back.
“It was this big, crazy dream,” Hill said. “I remember coming here when I was little, and everything was bigger and the girls were bigger and it was just this huge idea in my head.
“And now I’m here, and it’s awesome.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or :