It wasn’t so long ago that if your softball team had a pitcher who worked on her craft in the offseason, it enjoyed a competitive advantage.

These days, year-round preparation is virtually a must.

Most of the teams in central Maine have competent pitchers who use a variety of pitches, can spot the ball effectively and throw hard. It’s rare to see a so-called lollipopper lob the ball over the plate and then rely on her defense.

“There’s not that much of a variety,” Erskine coach Holly Tripp said. “In general, there’s much better pitching.”

Erskine has its own in sophomore Kayla Hodgkins, who struck out 11 batters Tuesday in a win over Spruce Mountain. Her work with a pitching coach in the offseason has shown up so far.

“She’s really thinking about where she wants to put (the ball),” Tripp said. “She’s hitting her spots.”

Sophomores Jillian Bisson of Gardiner, Emily Chasse of Monmouth and Layne Audet of Winthrop have all enjoyed similar success this spring after putting in hours of work after the end of last season.

Richmond senior Meranda Martin has been working with pitching coaches since middle school and is constantly developing her repertoire.

“In the summer I throw all of my pitches,” Martin said. “I have six different ones and I keep them all in the mix.”

Martin plays on a summer league team, works out each Sunday in the offseason while also pitching two or three a times a week. That may increase being that her grandfather has opened an indoor facility — MPN Sports and Fitness — in Richmond..

She sometimes divides pitching duties with her teammates but Martin has been on the mound for three of the team’s state championship wins and most of their 76 straight victories.

Lawrence senior Lilly Herrin has pitched all four years for the Bulldogs and has shown steady improvement according to coach Joey Marcoux. Wednesday, she allowed four hits and fanned nine in a 4-2 win against Cony. Like her counterparts, Herrin has put in a lot of extra work.

“I play on an 18U summer team,” Herrin said. “We play year-round. We play in the dome in Topsham, We play doubleheaders on Saturdays in the winter, we practice in the fall. We’re going to start right up again in a couple of weeks. Then we play in the summer tournaments. My pitching coach, Bethany Fisher, she helps me out too in the gym.”

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Richmond is looking for some competition. Not only are the Bobcats aiming for their fifth consecutive Class D state championship, they’ve also won 76 straight games. They were 6-0 heading into Thursday’s game against Class C Traip Academy. The team will face Class C competition three more times in the next week, twice against Old Orchard Beach and once against St. Dominic.

“It’s important for us to see some different teams,” Richmond coach Tony Martin said. “Hopefully, they give us some good games.”

The closest game so far for the Bobcats has been an 8-1 win over Buckfield, handing the Bucks their only loss.

“When we go over there, it will be a different story,” Martin said.

Martin has used four pitchers so far, including his daughter Meranda, junior Sydney Tilton, sophomore Caitlin Kendrick and freshman Bri Lancatser. Tilton catches when she’s not on the mound while Martin plays shortstop.

The Bobcats have added a new backstop and installed a fence that measures 200 feet from home plate. Tilton has cleared it three times already, although she hasn’t seen too many pitches.

“There’s a few times they just walk her,” Martin said.

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Gardiner faces its toughest opponent today when it hosts unbeaten Medomak Valley. The Panthers, led by Gabby DePatsy on the mound and at the plate, are 7-0 and have outscored their opponents 81-21.

“They’re consistent all around,” Gardiner coach Don Brochu said.

The Tigers are 7-1 and just a pitch away from a perfect record. Their only loss so far was a 1-0 decision to Nokomis on a walk-off homer in the seventh inning. Sophomore Jillian Bisson struck out 11 in the loss.

“We’re definitely playing better than I expected,” Brochu said. “We’re keeping the erros down.”

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Erskine is 3-4 heading into Friday’s game at Waterville. In addition to losing to unbeaten Medomak Valley and Winslow, the Eagles have also dropped two one-run decisions.

“We’re not scared of being down,” Erskine coach Holly Tripp said. “I think we can win against anybody, but there are no gimmes on the schedule.”

The Eagles have a strong battery in sophomore pitcher Kayla Hodgkins and senior catcher Taylor McLaggan.

“Taylor McLaggan is doing a great job,” Tripp said. “She’s calling all the pitches.”

Senior Faith Krause has also come on strong and has moved up to the lead-off spot in the batting order.