VASSALBORO — Kristen MacDonald started hearing footsteps Tuesday after the front nine of the second round of the 56th annual New England Women’s Amateur at Natanis Golf Course.

The first-round leader from Billerica, Mass., had watched a comfortable five-stroke lead over chief pursuer, Sam Morrell, shrivel away on the back stretch.

It was just two as the pair made their way to the 18th tee.

“I knew she was playing well,” MacDonald said, “but I didn’t want to anything that took me away from my game. I just wanted to finish strong.”

MacDonald, 23, did, dropping in a short birdie putt on the 18th to finish at 3-over par 75 to take a three-shot lead over Morrell heading into the final round today on the 5,506-yard Tomahawk Course.

“I’d rather be chasing, but I was kind of hoping I’d be a little closer,” said Morrell, a North Kingstown, R.I., native and a senior at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “It wasn’t meant to be. Kristen played pretty well. She made a lot of her putts. But I’m still lurking. I’m still in the mix.”

Jen Holland of Branford, Conn. and Rita Bedard of Sturbridge, Mass. are five shots back and tied for third place.

Katie Partridge (155), Keely Levins (156) and defending New England Women’s Amateur champ Pam Kuong (156) follow.

Natanis members Dale Hannon and Marie Cates each enjoyed improved performances Tuesday. Hannon shot an 85 after a 90 on Monday. Cates finished with a 78 after shooting an 81 in the opening round.

Natanis members Ashley Chubbuck (188) and Jennifer Durant (195) are also competing.

Saco native Emily Bouchard, the defending Maine Amateur champ, shot a 78 Tuesday for a two-day total of 159.

She had the best round of any Maine golfer for a second consecutive day. She shot an 81 on Monday.

“I did a little bit better but I still left some shots out there,” she said. “I missed a few three-footers, and you can’t do that. I wanted to be a little bit better, a little bit lower.”

MacDonald had her short game working for most of the sun-splashed day.

She parred eight consecutive holes after hiccups on the par 4 fifth (double bogey) and par 4 sixth (bogey).

She saved par on two par 3s — the seventh and 11th. She worked out of bunkers on both holes.

“That par 3 (on 11) was huge,” MacDonald said. “Getting up and down out of the bunker was big. That was huge confidence-wise.”

MacDonald had a five-shot lead over Morrell after 12 holes, but that’s when things got interesting.

Morrell, the 2010 New England Amateur champ, converted two five-foot birdie putts on consecutive holes, the par 3 13th and par 5 14th, to chip away at the lead.

“I had a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “Those birdies got me going.”

MacDonald then bogeyed 16 and 17 as Morrell pulled within two shots.

On the 18th, MacDonald hit a good drive that left her about 110 yards from the hole.

She then used a wedge to come within inches of the pin.

“To bounce back like that gave me some confidence,” said MacDonald, who made two birdies. “I was happy with my round but it could’ve been better. I didn’t have any real good looks for birdies.”

Added Morrell, who was a first team All-Colonial Athletic Association member last season: “We’ll see how everything goes (today). It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Morrell and MacDonald will tee off today at 10:50 a.m.

Bill Stewart — 621-5640

[email protected]

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