Few players in the state meant as much to their softball team last season as Skowhegan’s Shelby Obert. With Obert gone to graduation, the remaining Indians players expected the team to take a step back.

“We didn’t have high expectations coming into the season,” outfielder Mikayla Toth said. “We were just thinking, win as many games as we can, and we’ll stick together.”

But Skowhegan has a habit of peaking at the right time under coach Lee Johnson, and the Indians did it again this season. After finishing 12-4 in the regular season, Skowhegan ran the table in the postseason and captured the school’s first state softball title since 1993.

That makes Johnson the choice as the Morning Sentinel Softball Coach of the Year. Also considered were Madison’s Chris LeBlanc, J.D. McLellan of Nokomis, and Mt. Blue’s Chuck Wallace.

Johnson was the ideal coach for a team that was doubting itself. With only three players returning in the same positions, he was patient enough to let them work through the rough patches.

“He believes in everybody,” catcher Andrea Quirion said. “He never gives up on anybody. He just puts so much courage in every one of us.”

“He’s always really supportive and positive,” Toth said. “Most coaches, you can see an ugly side when things get down in a game. He’s always really positive.”

Johnson also had a great setup for teaching a young team. With five assistant coaches, all of them veterans in the program, there was a level of teaching that couldn’t be done by just one person.

“I’m pretty fortunate,” Johnson said. “These people ask to help out. I don’t go get them. The way we do things, it does spread things out a little bit. It allows us to have flexibility in our practices. When we’re able to put them into station-type stuff, it increases the number of reps that they can get. I don’t know how some people do it by themselves, to be honest with you.”

With Obert at the University of Maine, each remaining player took a leap forward as a hitter. Taylor Johnson, Lee’s daughter, hit .553. Toth batted .474 and scored 36 runs in 20 games. Quirion and Eliza Bedard hit .400, and Renee Wright, Kaitlyn Therriault, and Emma Fitzgerald all hit over .350. The Indians batted .381 as a team, with a .442 on-base percentage.

“I think at the beginning of the season, we were like, ‘We need to replace (Shelby),'” Quirion said. “All of us seniors, we each chipped in a little bit, and it came out greater than I expected.”

While the offense was powerful and Therriault and Taylor Johnson were back as pitchers from last year, the defense was still a question. That got better as the season unfolded, until Skowhegan was strong in every area.

Even with such a balanced team, the playoffs weren’t easy. Skowhegan won three straight one-run games in the Eastern A tournament, the last against a Cony team that had already defeated the Indians three times this year.

“We had that saying, ‘Punch ’em in the mouth,'” Toth said. “We needed to come out and be very aggressive. (Coach) told us we had nothing to lose. We had lost to them three times.”

Under Johnson, the Indians had been to the state final four times but had always finished as the runner-up. This time it would be different, as the Indians battered Thornton with four runs in the first inning and went on to a 7-3 victory.

“They’re the most unselfish group I’ve ever coached,” Johnson said. “Not one time did I ever get asked, ‘What’s my batting average? Why am I hitting in this spot?’ It was just about the team.”

Johnson not only celebrated his first state championship as a coach, he did so with his daughter, who was playing her final game for Skowhegan.

“He was probably the happiest coach I’ve ever had,” Quirion said. “I’ve never seen a coach cry, and he started crying in the sixth inning — like, ‘We’re going to win this.'”

“It was a pretty special day,” Coach Johnson said. “It still gets to me at this point, that one of my kids was able to enjoy this moment that very few kids get to enjoy — winning your last game. I’m happy for her, but the way I look at this whole team, I’ve got a team full of daughters.”

The state championship and Taylor’s graduation have prompted seemingly everyone to see if they can be the person to get her father to answer the expected question: Is he coming back to coach Skowhegan next season?

“I wish I could tell you an answer to that, because I really don’t know,” Coach Johnson said. “My emotions are all over the place. One day I’m like, ‘I’m definitely coming back.’ The next day I’m like, ‘Maybe I need to do something else with my life.’ I get asked it five times a day. Right now, I’m really too close to the season.”

“I’m hoping he comes back for the girls,” Toth said, “because everyone loves him.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

Twitter: @Matt_DiFilippo

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