Richmond’s Bryannah Shea pitches during practice Wednesday in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In softball, pitching is always vital.

When there’s been a two-year period since teams last played, however, being strong in the circle may be more important than it’s ever been.

“I really think this year is going to be a pitchers’ year,” new Gardiner coach Ryan Gero said. “A lot of these pitchers who put in the work the last two years, they haven’t stopped working. A lot of these kids that don’t play travel ball, that are just school ball players, haven’t swung a bat in two years. I think at the beginning of the year, you’re going to see a lot of pitchers doing very well.”

Pitching is always the heart of a good team, but with hitters having an extra layer of rust to knock off, the game could tilt even more to the teams that have bona fide aces leading the way.

Madison coach Chris LeBlanc has one of those pitchers in junior Brooke McKenney. He agreed that pitching is even more pivotal this season.

“Hitting is about timing and repetition, and you need other people to be able to do that,” he said. “Whereas the pitching, a lot of them were able to do their pitching with their pitching coaches and work on their game.”

Pitching has paved the way to regional and state titles for the area’s most consistently successful teams. Madison has been one of them, claiming the last four Class C South titles and three state titles with the torch being passed from Lauria LeBlanc to McKenney.

Even with McKenney in the circle, Coach LeBlanc said the rest of the team, led by a strong junior class, needs to step up for the Bulldogs to remain the team to beat as they have been. Leadoff hitter and junior shortstop Landyn Landry, junior catcher Lillian Levesque and senior third baseman Jersey Tewksbury give Madison a pretty good core to start with.

“That level is certainly a high level, and our expectation is to be there,” said Coach LeBlanc, who called Hall-Dale, which is benefitting from a youth movement in 2019, the team to beat in Class C. “It’s just a matter of are we willing to put in the work and the necessary things to accomplish those goals.”

In Class A, Skowhegan has won three of the last four regional titles, and while the River Hawks’ championship core has changed, coach Lee Johnson expects his team to still be a top contender. Senior third baseman Mariah Whittemore and junior shortstop Jaycie Christopher (the leading hitter as a freshman) are the only returning starters, but senior Logan Wing, in addition to playing outfield, should form a good pitching staff with junior Kiara Warren and sophomore Sierra Carey.

Maranacook coach Don Beckwith watches catcher Esme Jamison during practice March 24 in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We’re quite young, we’ve really only got two seniors, but we do have a bunch of kids that have played a bunch of ball, played a lot of travel ball,” Johnson said. “I think we have a lot of potential. … We definitely have the expectation that we should be right there at the top of the group, no question about it. We’ll have a chance to be in that discussion at the end.”

Messalonskee, which won the Class A title in 2015 and since then has made the semifinals twice, including in 2019, has consistently been one of Skowhegan’s main rivals. That shouldn’t change; with nine seniors and four returning starters, the Eagles should be square in the mix in A North.

Brooke Martin at catcher and Kristen Dube in center field, both seniors, lead the way. A new pitcher, Kate Douglass, will take over after Danielle Hall graduated, and the infield is all new.

“These girls have played with each other for a very long time,” coach Samantha Tunningley said. “I think once the (newer players) adjust to the varsity level, once they kind of get through that barrier and get that experience under their belt, I think they’ll do well.”

Richmond, which made the D South final in 2019 and ’17 and won the championship in 2016, is likely looking at a rebuilding season. The Bobcats have three seniors, two juniors, two sophomores, a freshman and three eighth graders, and the hope is to build into a competitive team by season’s end.

Richmond’s Leah Wescott hits during practice Wednesday in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Coach Tony Martin said the open tournament, which allows all teams to make the postseason this spring, is perfectly timed for his group.

“I think that’s going to help out, especially with the younger kids that haven’t seen tournament play,” he said. “Playing the stronger MVC teams, they’re going to see a lot different softball from what they’ve seen in their middle school seasons, for sure.”

Two of the top Class B contenders have been Gardiner and Oak Hill, both of whom have made three straight regional quarterfinals. Gero doesn’t expect his team, led by senior shortstop Maddie Farnham, senior center fielder Liv Tyler and sophomore catcher Kylie Boardman, to slow down — literally.

“We’re fast, we’re aggressive, and we’re going to make teams make plays, for sure,” he said. “I’d like to be in the top five, six teams in our division. … My goal is I want to be one of the top teams in Class B South.”

Don Theriault’s team in Oak Hill may be a year away from that kind of status, but he likes the direction of the program.

“We lost two All-State pitchers and an All-State catcher, and then of course, the following year COVID hit, and even then we were going to be a young rebuilding team as it was,” he said. “The good thing is we’re really young, our young kids are really talented. In the next few years, I think you’re going to be hearing from us.”

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