Skowhegan’s Mariah Dunbar makes a play at first base during a Class A North semifinal game against Messalonskee last Saturday afternoon in Skowhegan. Photo by Jennifer Bechard

SKOWHEGAN — She does not bat in the cleanup spot. She doesn’t pitch, and she doesn’t play one of the coveted up-the-middle infield positions. She’s not even named “Sydney,” which would seem to be a prerequisite for attention on the Skowhegan softball team in recent seasons.

Mariah Dunbar may be the least heralded softball player in Class A this spring, but without her Skowhegan certainly wouldn’t be playing in Saturday’s state championship game after winning its third Class A North championship in four seasons on Wednesday afternoon. All the senior first baseman has done for the 19-0 squad is deliver in big moments, time and time again.

“I’ve had a few parents and friends of mine come to games and really commented, ‘You know who’s been really big for you? Mariah Dunbar.’ Hey, I’ve been saying that all year,” Skowhegan coach Lee Johnson said. “When I look at the stats, she’s been huge. She’s one of those quiet personality kids who doesn’t always stand out to you, but this year she’s been a huge, huge lift for us.”

Dunbar sits second on the team in batting with a .483 average and seven doubles this season, all while serving as its best run producer with 28 RBIs. In the playoffs, she’s been even better — going 8 for 10 (.800) in the three regional tournament games with seven RBIs. Smack dab in the middle of the lineup as the No. 5 hitter, she reached base successfully in her first nine postseason plate appearances. It wasn’t until the fifth inning of the 5-1 win over Oxford Hills, her final at-bat of the game after delivering both the game-tying and game-winning runs with her two-run first-inning single to center field, that she was finally sent back to the dugout before reaching first base successfully.

Amazingly, the first time Dunbar will learn about any of these statistics, presumably, is when she reads these very words in print.

“I don’t know what they are,” Dunbar said of her numbers. “I just kind of go out and try my best to hit. It’s been working. I just go up there thinking, ‘Hit every pitch,’ and the go from there.

“This year, I’ve been more confident at the plate. Last year I was a little shaky, because I didn’t have the batting average — that I know of, because I never really hit the ball — but this year I feel like I can hit anything.”

“I saw some of it last year, to be honest with you,” said Johnson of the senior who it hit over .300 in 2018. “There were times she had some really good at-bats, and I could see her swing was definitely developing. The big thing this year is she’s really figured out a timing mechanism for her, and her confidence — she’s found it this year. I saw it from the get-go, that she was in a different place mentally.”

Skowhegan first baseman Mariah Dunbar makes the out as Lewiston runner Gemma Landry hustles to the bag during a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A game earlier this season in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Her best friend, Sydney Ames, believed Dunbar was sitting on a big season well before this spring ever rolled around.

“Mariah is one of those people who is really humble and she gives credit to others when she deserves it,” Ames said. “I love that most about her, but she’s an amazing softball player. She’s worked very hard on her hitting. She comes in very handy whenever we need a timely hit. She’s always there to give us what we need, and I think she’s hit a lot better this year.”

Dunbar was a third baseman by trade, only making the switch to the opposite corner of the infield after Johnson finally got her in the varsity program in 2017. She’s been a three-year starter at first entering this season’s final game.

“In the beginning, we weren’t sure it was going to work, to be honest,” Johnson said. “We saw her length, and we look for that. But you have to be a confident person over there, and sometimes for Mariah that’s been a little bit of an issue. Last year is when I noticed she made a big jump defensively to believing in herself, and this year she’s been outstanding.”

“The first time I noticed her playing first base, I thought she’s really good at that spot,” Ames said. “Nobody expected her to do that at that spot. She rocks that place. That’s where she belongs. The first time she did a split at first, none of us expected it. We were like, ‘Whoa. Since when can you do that?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, it just kind of happened.’ We told her to keep doing it.”

Dunbar has worked hard to improve defensively. In fact, she’s worked hard to improve all areas of her game — a game that, when it was first introduced to her while she was in elementary school, she didn’t even like. On a team with a pitch-to-contact hurler like Ames, the role of the defense has taken on greater significance. More balls in play, more balls on the infield, mean more putout chances at first base.

First base defense is not as simple as holding onto your glove.

“It’s so much more than that,” Ames said. “It’s catching balls that come at you that aren’t even close to you. It’s ground balls that come at you really hard sometimes. It’s knowing all the stuff that we’re doing at all of the other positions. It’s crazy.”

“In practice, I take it seriously. I want to get better,” Dunbar said. “I think of the game situations and do everything I would try to do in a game. Basketball’s always been my favorite sport. This year, I think it’s tied. It’s changed a lot. Our team chemistry this year is a long stronger. I kind of fell in love with the game now.”

Graduation last Sunday may not even end up being Dunbar’s best memory from June of 2019, despite driving in nearly a third of Skowhegan’s postseason runs and having her hand in nine of the 25 the team scored in the regional tournament. There’s still one more game to play, and one title which has eluded a talented senior class at Skowhegan.

A win over unbeaten Scarborough in Brewer would give Skowhegan its first softball state championship since 2014.

“It’s weird having only one game left. I don’t like it,” Dunbar said. “I just want to keep playing, because this year has been so much fun with this team.”

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