If there’s a team in Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B that appears ready to take the next step, it would be Nokomis Regional High School.

A huge contingent of returning players, including a strong nucleus of juniors who helped the Warriors finish fifth in B North last season, return to lead a potentially dangerous club.

“It’s amazing what one year can do,” Nokomis coach J.D. McLellan said. “They’ve really grown up in a year. Last year, they were on the bench joking around a lot and having a good time. This year, they’ve come in and been all business. They’ve matured.”

That alone will be a big step forward in a league that boasts the likes of Hermon and Oceanside — which both went unbeaten last year — as well as Winslow and Old Town.

“We lost a good ace pitcher and a leadoff batter, but all the rest that started for us were sophomores,” McLellan said. “This year, I think we’re going to go deep into the playoffs.”

Winslow will certainly have a say in that. Like Nokomis, the Black Raiders lost a talented pitcher but return plenty of other players who played key roles in a run to the regional finals.

“These kids are ready to prove themselves,” Winslow coach Steve Bodge said. “We have plenty of work still to do but have goals similar to every season — make the playoffs with a chance to win it all.”

Gardiner graduated Bri Brochu but returns nearly everyone else. Junior Julia Nadeau is the team’s top returning hitter and may catch or play third depending on need. Sophomore Jillian Bisson is in the circle while junior shortstop Logan Granholm and senior left-fielder Mallory Bailey are also key returning players.

“We’ve got some experience,” Gardiner coach Don Brochu said. “I think we could win 10 games.”

Erskine coach Holly Tripp is excited about sophomore pitcher Kayla Hodgkins, who had a strong freshman season and has devoted herself in the offseason.

“I only see her getting better,” Tripp said.

The Eagles have a top-notch catcher in all-conference senior Taylor McLaggan, who is also the top hitter. Jenna Lully and Lydia Boucher also swing the bat well, but there are holes to fill defensively.

Three teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year — Mount View, Waterville and MCI — all have pieces that could carry them back to the postseason this spring. Mount View has five starters back in the fold, while Waterville and MCI each have new head coaches.

For MCI, Tony Stewart took over the program two games into last season — then promptly lost standout first baseman Hailey Gurney to a knee injury for the season. Gurney should be back, along with five juniors who all started a year ago.

Waterville has former Thomas College baseball player Tom Toner as its head coach, and he has been stressing fundamentals. He’s hoping his team will score runs by whatever means necessary to help his pitching staff work through any early season kinks.

Paige Costa returns for her third year to pitch at Maranacook and leads a strong group of senior hitters. Costa is not overpowering and will need help from her defense to be successful.

“Offensively we should be better,” co-coach Don Beckwith said. “The kids haven’t played enough softball to be really good. We can’t look past a single game, we just can’t.”

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