GARDINER — Like any good, loyal catcher would, Gardiner’s Morgan Carver has accompanied pitcher Kristal Smith on a few of her pre-sunrise pitching practices at the Gardiner Boys and Girls Club.

Catching Smith’s 60 mph fastball with bleary eyes isn’t easy, but Carver marvels at her teammate’s dedication to her pitching craft.

“I’ve done it with her a few times and it’s like, ‘I don’t even know how you do this every week,'” Carver said.

Smith’s willingness to go to work before the crack of dawn and her uncommon competitiveness have prepared her to take on added responsibilities for her senior year and become one of the top pitchers in Class B. The Tigers have hopes of getting over the hump this year and winning their first state softball title since 1980, and their ace and cleanup hitter is a big reason why.

Smith knew she would have more weight on her shoulders coming into the season. Last year, she split pitching duties with Brittany Rollins. The duo essentially alternated starts, rarely faced the same opponent twice and led the Tigers to an undefeated regular season. Rollins graduated last June, meaning Smith knew she was going to get the ball every day.

She welcomed the challenge, while altering her approach just a little bit. Knowing she would have to pace her arm more, she’s placed less emphasis on strikeouts and more emphasis on efficiency.

“I definitely have to work harder, but also let my defense do the work,” Smith said. “I have faith in them.”

Carver, who has caught Smith since sixth grade, said her teammate’s work ethic and competitiveness set her apart.

“Her mindset and her determination to do well and to win are what set her apart,” she said. “She takes this very seriously… and she pushes herself every day.”

“She’s always been a worker,” said Gardiner coach Don Brochu, who took over as head coach this season after four years as a volunteer assistant. “She enjoys the game.”

Besides working out twice a week before school, Smith also spends most of her offseason playing travel softball. She’s worked on increasing her velocity, which is already pretty impressive. Brochu has also seen better command of the strike zone using more of her wide array of pitches this year.

“She has a little more control,” he said. “She can fight back from a 3-0 deficit (in the count) and throw strikes.”

Smith had to fight back from a rare deficit of another kind on Monday against Winslow. It took longer than usual to get her arm loose and she gave up a run in the first and another in the third as the Tigers fell behind 2-1. The offense picked her up, though, and Smith got the big outs when she needed them in a 7-5 win that improved Gardiner’s record to 6-0.

“It was probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played during the high school season, to be completely honest,” she said. “But after that first inning, I just decided to let them hit the ball, let the defense do the work and we’ll get out of it.”

It was a marked contrast from her previous start, when she no-hit Nokomis and struck out 16. She struck out just two against Winslow. But that win taught her that being an ace isn’t necessarily about being dominant every time she’s in the circle. It’s often about finding a way to grind out a win when she doesn’t have her best stuff.

“I’ve got the teammates behind me to pick up the slack,” she said. “We pick each other up.”

Last week, Smith committed to play softball for St. Joseph’s College in Standish. Coincidentally, that will be the site of this year’s Class B state championship game.

Smith would love nothing more than to celebrate with her high school teammates on the field where she will soon be joining her new college teammates.

“It would mean so much to win,” she said. “It’s been 35 years since we won a state championship, and to have this group of girls that have been together for so long do it would be a great way to end the season and have a legacy left behind.”

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