SOUTH CHINA — The defensive miscues were piling up. The hits were not coming. The visiting Gardiner softball team was piling up runs faster than early April snow in central Maine. Adding insult to injury, the iPad keeping score in the Erskine Academy dugout even stopped working.

Four errors and a four-run fourth inning for the Tigers in a game last month had the potential to derail a promising Erskine season before it ever really had the chance to begin. Eagles head coach Holly Tripp had seen the signs before for her team, one which won only five games all of last season and missed the Class B North playoffs for a second consecutive year.

Erskine softball players gather in a circle and praise their teammate Parker King, center, following practice at the school Thursday in South China. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“Funks were frequent,” Tripp said. “We were a frequently funky team in the past. I don’t think we would have responded the same way. Our girls now look for places where we struggle, and then immediately think of how we can fix it next time. They’re really proactive that way.”

Proactive enough that Erskine entered Thursday sitting eighth in Class B North’s standings, firmly entrenched in one of the 14 available postseason slots. With four wins through their first six games, the Eagles could match last season’s win total by Friday evening after hosting Mount View.

The turnaround is noticeable, if difficult to define. But senior shortstop Lydia Boucher remembered the feeling of that Gardiner loss.

“Quicksand,” she said. “They scored (four runs) in one inning. If we take that one inning away, we were right in it the whole time. We just really need to take it inning by inning and break it down like that.”

And that’s exactly what the Eagles have done. On Monday, they beat perennial regional contender Winslow, 3-1. Four-year starting pitcher Kayla Hodgkins tossed a three-hitter at the Black Raiders, and her defense was nearly flawless behind her.

Hodgkins is rounding into the dominant pitcher seen in flashes as an underclassmen, and she’s doing it not by overpowering opposing lineups but instead by relying on her teammates. It’s a simple philosophy, one Erskine is proving effective.

“I feel like that’s changed over the years,” Hodgkins said. “It gives you a lot of confidence. Our defense is really in the game now.”

“Her confidence is really high, and the more she feels confident in the defense behind her, she can really let it rip and she doesn’t feel like it’s all on her,” Tripp said. “She would never say that, I’m hypothesizing for her.”

Boucher describes it as a symbiotic relationship between the pitcher and her defense, where it’s not necessarily broken down into defined roles.

Erskine softball players groom the field Thursday in South China following practice. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“It’s not just ‘pitch’ and ‘field,’ it’s this ‘play.’ We’re all in it together,” Boucher said. “We work better like that.”

As if to prove her point, Boucher turned to Hodgkins while pondering the answer to a question about the pitcher’s performances this season to ask for her input.

“I want to make sure she agrees with what I’m saying,” Boucher said with a laugh.

Averaging nearly seven runs per game, Erskine has outscored its opposition 40-16 this season. They are hitting the ball out of all nine spots in the lineup and Hodgkins is among the better pitchers in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B division.

As if to alleviate any concerns Tripp might have had following the Gardiner loss about dipping into another early-season “funk,” the Eagles are 2-0 since and have allowed just a single run against in each of those two games.

“It’s simple if you have the right mindset before (games),” Hodgkins said. “But if you get down on yourself in the early innings, then our mindset is really off for the rest of the game. We just have to stay with it the whole time.”

Frankly, it will not be easy over the remaining 10 games on the schedule.

The Eagles have yet to play any of their KVAC Class A crossover games, and there are no slouches awaiting them in that three-game set. They’ll travel to Edward Little before hosting defending Class A North champion (and currently undefeated) Oxford Hills and local rival Cony. Those three teams are a combined 11-5 and all among the top six teams in Class A North currently.

They’ve also got a return date with Gardiner and a tough draw against Class C South contender Maranacook.

“I embrace it,” Tripp said. “As all coaches do, you look and you count and you have some numbers in your head for what are some W’s you should have and what are some L’s you could have. It will be interesting, but to be honest I think this team could be playoff bound. I’d rather have tough games going into that than a bunch of cakewalks.”

Not that the Eagles are worried. They like their playoff hopes, and — more importantly — they like their group as it’s currently constructed.

“In the past, I feel like we were just playing. Now, I feel like we all have a fire and an energy in us,” Boucher said. “We all have a greater want to win and do really well. We wanted to win the past, obviously, but this year we have more grit. We want to push ourselves.”

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