Hall-Dale catcher Zoe Soule plays in game against Madison on Monday in Farmingdale. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

FARMINGDALE — The Hall-Dale softball team had a chance to earn its biggest win in years, and that chance was riding on Zoe Soule at the plate.

The Bulldogs trailed Madison by two runs in the bottom of the seventh. Two were on. It was a big spot for any player — let alone a freshman.

“There was definitely pressure,” Soule said. “Going into it, I was like ‘Oh God, this is kind of nerve-wracking.'”

Nervous as Soule was, she didn’t show it. Soule drilled a double into the left-center field gap, then later came around to score the winning run in a 4-3 victory.

That’s been a theme for the Hall-Dale catcher this season. Just hitting, time after time, regardless of the situation or opponent.

“I don’t think she thinks about it when she gets up there,” Hall-Dale coach Steve Acedo said. “She’s having fun just going with the flow and stuff. For a freshman, I’m really impressed with what she’s done so far, especially behind the plate.”

Just under four miles away, there’s a similar dynamic at play at Gardiner, where sophomore catcher Kylie Boardman has been proving herself to be one of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s toughest outs.

“It was kind of a surprise,” Gardiner coach Ryan Gero said. “The offseason work that she put in this year, you can tell what a difference. Her swing, her power, everything about it. She was famous for hitting ground balls, and now she’s just ripping line drives.”

Gardiner’s Kylie Boardman knocks the ball for a 2-run double in the first inning against Cony earlier this season at Cony Family Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Bulldogs and Tigers have been two of the area’s top stories so far, sporting undefeated records at 8-0 and 5-0, respectively, and both have seen their rookie backstops play pivotal roles in that early success. Soule has settled in as Hall-Dale’s leadoff hitter, and flourished to the tune of a .469 batting average and .611 on-base percentage. Boardman bats sixth and has sizzled to start her varsity career, batting .750 while reaching base 19 times in 23 plate appearances.

Soule, who plays travel softball, was confident in her ability coming in, but was unsure about how she would mesh with the older players.

The first game, the Monmouth games we had that weren’t regular-season games, I was so nervous,” she said. “But after that game, I knew that I was fine because my teammates were helping me. They were encouraging me that I was doing fine.”

Her teammates quickly saw that she could play. Soule went 3-for-3 with two walks and four runs in the opening victory against Winthrop, and she’s been hitting ever since.

I knew in middle school we faced some good pitchers, and in travel I faced good pitchers,” she said. “I knew as a freshman, it was going to be hard to get up to the level that everyone else is playing at, but I think … on this team, you can be at any age level and do whatever because our chemistry’s so good.”

Acedo said it’s been an easy decision to put the responsibility of the leadoff spot and catcher position on Soule, who has developed a strong rapport with fellow freshman Ashlynn Donahue in the circle.

“She’s in the meat of it. She’s center focus right now. She’s behind the plate every game, she’s running the pitchers, she calls probably 85, 90 percent of the game herself,” he said. “To me, the hitting’s a bonus. We needed somebody behind the plate and she’s doing a good job. She’s controlling the running game really well.”

It’s the same story at Gardiner, where Boardman, who didn’t have the benefit of a freshman season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has nevertheless blistered at the plate. Like Soule, Boardman credited her travel competition — she plays for Gero’s Madness team — with preparing her for the learning curve.

“I was a little nervous about (the adjustment). But it’s not as bad as I thought it was going (to be),” she said. “I’m playing against girls that I’ve been playing against all of my life, because they also play travel. So I know their routines and how they’re going to play.”

Gero said catching has helped Boardman at the plate.

“She’s very disciplined. She doesn’t chase, you’re going to have to pitch to her,” he said. “She’s a very smart kid. … She’s seeing what other girls are doing in the box and adjusting to that, and kind of seeing what they’re doing and where their success is. She’s just processing it.”

Impressive as Boardman has been, she’s had to earn the job every practice. The Tigers have another good sophomore catcher in Dakota Lovely, and Gero said Boardman has been spurred on by the competition.

“She knows that if she goes down or if something happens, and (Lovely) steps in and takes over, she might not get back in,” Gero said. “She’ll come up to me and say ‘Coach, I’m batting .750.’ Then next week, ‘Coach, I’m batting .800 now.’ … I think she’s doing that as kind of saying ‘Don’t forget, I’m ripping the ball right now.'”

She’s been just as smooth defensively, even as a lefty playing an almost exclusively right-handed position.

“Defensively, she’s shut-down,” Gero said. “She gobbles everything up.”

The catcher has to be a guiding presence as well. Even as a first-year varsity player, Boardman’s found that side to be a fit.

“I’ve caught my whole life, so I know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I have a good voice, I scream at them if I have to. I don’t hold back very much, I’m a loud person. … I’m just doing my job. Coach wants me to be loud and vocal, because it helps them focus more.”

Like Soule’s teammates at Hall-Dale, Boardman’s have learned it’s a voice they can trust.

“Catcher is a big leadership role. You see everything,” Boardman said. “I really wanted to play with the older girls and show them what I could do and impress them, in a way. It’s been so fun.”

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