What was a two-horse race in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference last spring has taken on a different feel in 2019.

Skowhegan played the role of the early speed horse in search of a third straight regional title last season, but it was caught at the wire by a deep and talented Oxford Hills team for the Class A North championship. The Vikings will be the team everybody is chasing when the first pitches of the season are thrown over the next few days, but there are a whole host of challengers taking shape behind the frontrunners.

“They’re definitely the team that people are going to be chasing,” Skowhegan coach Lee Johnson said of Oxford Hills. “They swing the bats really well, their pitcher is really effective and they’re well-coached. They’re similar to where we were last year, they’re the team everybody’s going to be looking for.”

Skowhegan will look different, but not as different as some might believe. While standout Ashley Alward graduated last spring, she’s being replaced in the pitching circle by Sydney Ames — who on most other teams would probably be a three-year starting pitcher by now. And she’s throwing to Sydney Reed, giving Skowhegan a battery as good as any in the state.

Where Johnson’s squad will truly try to forge an identity is at the plate. More runs will likely be necessary to win games, given so many new faces fielding defensive positions.

“I don’t know where we’re going to be by the end of the season,” Johnson said. “But so far I’m pretty intrigued by some of our options.”

He’s not alone among KVAC coaches.

Messalonskee made the playoffs last season but bowed out in the quarterfinals. Another year older and more experienced, the Eagles could contend again.

Junior pitcher Danielle Hall is ready to realize the talent that made her such a promising freshman and sophomore at Messalonskee.

“She’s put in a lot of effort over the summers,” Messalonskee coach Samantha Moore said. “She’s always pitching, and we were able to keep tabs on her and her pitching coach (during the offseason). She’s always wanting to do more.”

Mt. Blue and Cony both missed the playoffs last season, but each of those squads return players who have been multi-year starters while going through some growing pains.

The Cougars haven’t been to the postseason since 2014, when they lost a preliminary round game. Moreover, they’ve not been to a regional quarterfinal in more than a decade.

After riding with a roster comprised primarily of freshmen and sophomores for the last three years, this could be the year it finally pays off for Ron Smith’s club. They started out 5-3 last year before fading, a sign sustained success might not be too far off.

“We were right there last year with some key wins, tight with Messalonskee,” Smith said. “We had a lot of games where we’d be up 3-1 and have one bad inning, give up four runs, and be done.

“We know that it’s been one quality win and you’re in. For us to make the playoffs, that would make a lot of old-timers around here smile.”

Cony has a new coach in Angela McKenna, who played for the Rams in the early 2000s. She’s hoping to bring Cony softball back into the limelight, and she thinks she’s got cornerstone pieces in third baseman Brooklyn Belanger and catcher Alexis Couverette to do it.

“I don’t really know where we’re going to end up in the conference but our goal is to hit the playoffs this year,” McKenna said. “Our main goal is to get there. We’ve got the skill, and we think we can be a team that can accomplish that.”

Bangor and Edward Little routinely field competitive squads that contend for home field advantage in the regional playoffs. Lewiston and Mt. Ararat have potential to surprise, too, with talented rosters that sometimes get overlooked. And Hampden Academy and Camden Hills are each poised to play spoiler to one or more of the other teams in the league’s playoff hopes.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Sydney Ames, Skowhegan
The senior pitcher will try to fill the shoes left by Ashley Alward, but she has a track record of her own that has been outstanding.

Sydney Reed, Skowhegan
Four-year starter at catcher is skilled at her craft behind the plate and a top returning bat for Skowhegan.

Danielle Hall, Messalonskee
Junior pitcher poised to take next step and join league’s elite pitchers this spring.

Aislynn Provencher, Mt. Blue
Senior is part of a full infield which returns intact for the Cougars this season.

Brooklyn Belanger, Cony
One of the Rams’ top returning hitters, she has been a cornerstone infielder for Cony for several seasons.

 

FIVE GAMES TO WATCH

April 22: Gardiner at Cony
April 24: Mt. Blue at Cony
April 26: Skowhegan at Messalonskee
May 17: Skowhegan at Oxford Hills
May 24: Skowhegan at Mt. Blue

PREDICTED CHAMP:

Oxford Hills

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