With the graduation of six starting seniors, including Maine Gatorade Softball Player of the Year Kirsten Pelletier, a daunting Messalonskee High School team no longer stands as a lone, terrifying fixture in Class A North.

What the rebuilt Eagles have left for everyone else is a sense that — for the first time in a few years — the race for the regional title is wide open.

“I think we’re going to see a very competitive league,” said Skowhegan coach Lee Johnson, whose team surprised everyone last spring with a run from the sixth seed to the regional championship. “I don’t think anybody is going to be the dominant team. I think there’s a lot of teams that are right in the middle of the mix that can beat anybody on any given day.”

The Indians should know. After finishing the regular season 9-7, they rolled all the way to the state title game with a team comprised almost entirely of sophomores in key positions. Sydney Ames and Ashley Alward give Skowhegan a strong 1-2 pitching punch, while Ames batted nearly .500 as a freshman last year.

Messalonskee may have suffered more graduation losses than any other team, but first-year head coach Samantha Moore said the team’s expectations remain the same after winning the 2015 state championship and running through the 2016 regular season undefeated.

“Absolutely, the expectations are still the same for us,” said Moore, who served as Leo Bouchard’s assistant coach last season with the Eagles. “Those seniors we had last year, they played virtually the same positions every single game. This year, it’s going to be different. We’re looking to use more, looking at giving pitchers some relief, having players who can play more than just one position.”

Both Lawrence and Mt. Blue narrowly missed out on postseason appearances last season. Like Messalonskee, Lawrence coach Joe Marcoux hopes the Bulldogs can rely on flexibility. After senior pitcher Lilly Herrin and junior catcher Haley Holt, the Bulldogs have a junior class than can play a number of different positions.

“I think the Messalonskees, the Skowhegans, the Conys of the world will all be fine,” Marcoux said. “I don’t know exactly where we fit with everyone else, but we’ll definitely be a better team than last year.”

Cony doesn’t have any overpowering pitching this year, but instead will rely on a group of control artists, led by junior Cari Hopkins. Sophomores Gabby McGuire and Regan Wing are also expected to see some action on the mound, along with junior Angelica Velazquez. The Rams bring back a strong infield defense led by senior Delaney Keithley at second base and sophomore Alexis Couverette at third. Freshman Carly Lettre will take over at shortstop. Couverette, who hit three homers last year, leads a group of solid hitters.

“We’re going to have to play defense and hit the ball,” Cony coach Rocky Gaslin said

Mt. Blue is hoping that a young, albeit talented, pitching staff can carry the Cougars deep into spring. But the most important newcomer for Mt. Blue might be senior Taylor Burke, a first baseman lost for virtually all of last season after breaking her leg in practice. She’s healthy again and could be the missing piece for the Cougars.

Teams got a taste last season of how unpredictable life in Class A North can be. Edward Little toppled previously unbeaten Messalonskee in the regional semifinals, Oxford Hills and Bangor finished second and third in the standings, a young Lewiston made the playoffs and two of Mt. Blue’s five wins came against eventual champ Skowhegan.

That seemed to somehow serve as a precursor to 2017.

In a preseason dotted with uncertainty thanks to lingering winter weather, one thing is certain: Changes at Messalonskee coupled with Skowhegan’s Cinderella run have plenty of teams hoping they can be next.

“I love the Skowhegan program, how they operate, how they’re successful,” Mt. Blue coach Ron Smith said. “They’re a team that peaked at the right moment and played well down the stretch.

“I think it could be any one of us on any given day this season. There’s a group of us that, whatever team matures quickest on the diamond and gets key wins early, that could be the team that will come out of this.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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