Hall-Dale’s Grace Begin tags Madison’s Emily Edgerly at first base during a Mountain Valley Conference game last month in Farmingdale. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

FARMINGDALE — Players, coaches, parents and interested observers rarely agree on some of the finer points of a game, but they were unanimous in their judgement of the Hall-Dale softball team’s win over Oak Hill on Wednesday afternoon.

A year ago, the Bulldogs never would have posted that 10-9 victory.

“Definitely not,” Hall-Dale senior Grace Begin said. “It’s all mentality. A lot of times, we were predicted to be a low or middle of the pack team, and this year we have states on our mind. We’re thinking one game at a time. We’ve got to beat the big dogs and be the team that nobody wants to play. So, we’re thinking game by game, ‘How do we become the team that nobody wants to play?'”

For starters, they’ve started becoming that team by going on an eight-game winning streak. While there are a number of weak teams in the Mountain Valley Conference, there are also a number of playoff-bound teams. The Bulldogs have wins over Lisbon and Monmouth, as well as ones against Class B teams Spruce Mountain and Oak Hill.

And the win over the Raiders was not of your garden variety.

Before recording the game’s second out, Hall-Dale found itself already facing a 4-0 deficit. The Bulldogs, now 9-1, trailed throughout against one of the MVC’s perennial powerhouses. It wasn’t until the bottom of the seventh inning, faced with a three-run deficit and the top of the order due up, that the Bulldogs finally took the lead in dramatic fashion — courtesy of senior third baseman Bella Marino’s bases-loaded double. Even though Marino has three home runs already this season, it was her biggest hit to date, according to Hall-Dale coach Steve Acedo.

The win vaulted Hall-Dale into second place in the Class C South Heal point standings, a remarkable achievement for a team that last season finished with a losing record and didn’t make it out of the preliminary round in the postseason.

“We have a stronger mindset this year, so we can take what we’re actually doing in practice and put it into games,” Marino said. “We’re executing. It was a challenge (against Oak Hill) to see where we grew as a team.”

So, what’s different for this year’s team?

The Bulldogs are healthy. Injuries ravaged the squad last spring, forcing young players into varsity time they were not ready for. There is also a nice blend of youth and experience with this year’s team, including seniors like Marino, Begin and Alyssa Bonenfant alongside freshmen like Iris Ireland — who homered against Oak Hill — and Emma Soule, who is one of three Bulldogs who entered the week batting over .600 for the season.

It’s all added up to games like Wednesday, a game Hall-Dale wouldn’t have won last season. Moreover, the Bulldogs might never have seen a sixth inning in that same game a year ago — having seen their early deficits of 4-0 and 9-3 spiral away into getting mercy-ruled.

“I’d probably have to agree with that,” Acedo said. “If that was last year, we don’t come back in that game. It’s probably a five-inning game — and that’s exactly what happened to us down there last year. We got down early, we didn’t keep battling and we were done in five.

“In the past, we’ve always hit the ball pretty good but we’d have one of those innings (defensively) that would effect us the whole game. We’d still hit, but the defense would keep dropping off because they had one bad inning. This year, they make a bad play but they brush it off and attack the next play.”

 

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Cony’s Brooklyn Belanger tries to make a play at shortstop against Skowhegan’s Sydney Ames during a game earlier this season in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Though unbeaten heading into Friday’s rematch of last season’s regional final, Lee Johnson still wonders how good his Skowhegan team really is.

“We’re still really growing right now,” Johnson said after an ugly 8-1 win over Cony last week that was probably not as one-sided as the final score indicated.

Skowhegan sits atop the Class A North Heal point standings at 11-0, separated by less than a tenth of a point from Oxford Hills in second. The team has allowed only five runs all season, has scored 124 runs of its own and only been in one contest decided by fewer than five runs.

Still, there is the feeling that Skowhegan hasn’t yet hit its stride. Certainly, the spring weather has taken a toll on the team in the same way it has everybody else in the region — cold and rain limited preseason and forced games to unfamiliar venues. For a team which replaced three-quarters of its starting infield and its all-conference pitcher, that was time that could have been used to jell and form a new identity.

Instead, like so many others, Skowhegan has adapted on the fly.

“We’re undefeated, but I don’t even know that we’re playing to our ability by any means,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get better. It’s weird to say that when you’ve only given up (five) runs all season, but we’ve got to get sharper all the way around, really.”

Friday’s lone meeting with Oxford Hills, another team still trying to fire on all cylinders, should speak volumes about how the postseason will stack up in A North.

 

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Madison pitcher Lauria LeBlanc (12) center, celebrates an out with teammates Brooke McKenney, left, and Lillian Levesque, right, in Madison earlier this season. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Another undefeated team with plenty of question marks is Madison in Class C South.

The defending state champions are 11-0 but have a quite different look than they did a year ago. Instead of a lineup that goes seven or eight batters deep and bludgeons teams into submission with constant pressure and run-production, the Bulldogs rely on their defense and cashing in on a few opportunities to find their way through the opposition.

Even junior pitcher Lauria LeBlanc, who is unbeaten in her career at 29-0, has had to embrace a new role. Against Oak Hill on Monday, LeBlanc yielded the circle to freshman Brooke McKenney for the final three innings of a 3-0 win.

“I want to do what’s best for the team so we can pull out the ‘W,’ so I just kind of accept it,” LeBlanc said. “I just go wherever they tell me to go.”

In a win over Telstar on Wednesday, the Bulldogs flipped the script, starting McKenney and bringing in LeBlanc in the fifth to see it through to the end. In back-to-back games, Madison coach Chris LeBlanc decided to change pitchers mid-game — and in both cases, it worked out well.

“(Against Oak Hill), that was the first game that was close that I made that pitching decision,” Chris LeBlanc said.


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