Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of our new series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

MADISON — Gummy worms and pedicures rekindled a sleeping dynasty in this small town.

“Beginning of the season, we put the date of the state championship game up on a big board at practice. That was first thing, during pitchers and catchers week,” recalled Aly LeBlanc, a senior catcher on Madison’s 2016 state championship softball team. “That was the only time I think we talked about it. We really didn’t mention it otherwise.

“We kind of had our mindset that we wanted to win the state championship, no question. But we also had the mentality that we were taking it game by game all season.”

Madison won four straight Class C state titles from 1994-1997, the final one capping a run of five in a six-year span. It took 17 years before the Bulldogs would win another.

Chris LeBlanc, Aly’s father and now the principal and athletic director at Madison Area Memorial High School, saw the need for a much stronger feeder program for the high school softball team. A decade before Aly LeBlanc, Kayla Bess and Erin Whalen became seniors who won it all during an undefeated senior season in 2016 — capped with a 3-1 win over nemesis Bucksport in the Class C state final — they were getting the stuffing knocked out of them in youth tournament after youth tournament all around the state at the 10u and 12u levels.

Bess said that you really didn’t know what you didn’t know when you were elementary school kids.

“I really think when you’re young, your parents push you to go do summer activities and that’s just kind of what you do,” said Bess, who graduated from Thomas College last December and now works for a sports marketing firm in Portland. “Everyone we knew was involved in the process. Our dads, our friends. I just remember that we were all excited for those long weekends, playing at MSA tournaments in Waterville. It was a great atmosphere, and it was a lot of fun for all of us. We all wanted to be there, we all wanted to play.

“You don’t notice it at the time, but in the long run those summers were definitely worth it.”

Madison softball players eagerly await Aly LeBlanc (51) to cross home plate during a 2016 Class C South playoff game against Hall-Dale in Madison. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s like building anything else. We’re just reaping the benefits of the work of anyone who was part of those Madison teams when they were little kids,” Chris LeBlanc added. “I wanted them to play together all summer. Sure, we can’t beat the Capital Maineiacs or these other powerhouse travel programs on a Sunday afternoon, but you know what we could do? We could get into the losers’ bracket and play three or four games a day and get all those at-bats and all those innings and learn how to play the game together.

“We turned it into a community thing where everybody came out and watched, and all the different teams watched one another. It became an event every weekend.”

By the time 2016 rolled around, Madison’s seniors had won a state championship in 2014 and lost in the regional final in 2015.

That loss to Telstar to end the ’15 season provided a bitter, hot-burning fuel for the Bulldogs entering 2016.

But there were question marks about how 2016 would play out. There were only three seniors on the team that spring, a junior pitcher in Madeline Wood and no fewer than four sophomores in the everyday starting lineup.

One of those sophomores was Whitney Bess, a third baseman and younger sister to shortstop Kayla Bess.

“I don’t know if I was intimidated,” Whitney said. She’s now a sophomore at Husson University, where she was the 2019 North Atlantic Conference rookie of the year. “We all grew up playing for Chris (LeBlanc) since we were little. We played with all of the older girls all the way through during the summers. All of our dads were all of our softball coaches.

Madison shortstop Kayla Bess fields a grounder during the 2016 senior all star game at Cony Family Field in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“It started at young ages, and we knew had a lot of talent. We just had to perform.”

Perform they did, rolling through all 21 games that season — including the Mountain Valley Conference championship — without a loss.

Two years later, the 2018 Madison team would similarly cap an undefeated season with the Class C Gold Glove, but that team featured seven seniors, and reaching the state final had become almost old hat for that group by then. The Class of ’18 reached the state title game in each of its final three seasons.

In 2016, it didn’t feel predestined. Instead, it felt like the culmination of all those youth softball tournaments.

“That’s the stuff that, to me, truly makes it a program,” Chris LeBlanc said. “I think in 2018 you had a team that wanted to continue the tradition with all those seniors. But in 2016, you had a combination. You had the three seniors in Erin, Kayla and Aly, but you had so many young kids in there aspiring to be the next group, too.”

“Whenever it’s this time of year again, I get all nostalgic,” added Erin Whalen, who is set to graduate from Husson and is working already in the nursing field. “It should be softball season again. I just always get that feeling.

“We did a lot of stuff together outside of practice, outside of games. We decorated balls. We’d write secret notes about positive things, anonymously, and give them to each other. We’d go out to eat after away games. All those times of team bonding, that’s what I remember most.”

There’s a few other things the players from Madison’s 2016 championship team remember, too.

There’s the gummy worms the assistant coaches handed out to players for base hits. There’s the time Chris LeBlanc grabbed a real worm off the outfield grass after a game, split it in half, and got Aishah Molloy to eat the other half.

“I don’t even remember what the significance was, but I’ll never forget that happening,” Kayla Bess laughed.

And then there were the pedicures.

Chris LeBlanc’s tradition with his senior class is to take them on a trip at the start of the playoffs for pedicures. And, yes, the head coach gets his feet done, too.

“I don’t know if he’d be mad at me for telling this, but we’d all go get pedicures together,” Whalen said. “I don’t think he has any shame. He wouldn’t paint his nails, but he’d definitely get his feet rubbed.”

 

 

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