Skowhegan’s Madalynne Morris, left holding ball, hugs teammate Riley Fitzpatrick after the river Hawks defeated Bangor 9-4 in the Class A North title game Thursday night at Cony High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The game is a familiar one for the Skowhegan softball team. The opponent is less so.

The River Hawks (18-1) will be playing in their fourth Class A championship game in five years and sixth in eight, and chasing their first state title since 2014 when they take the field Saturday afternoon at Saint Joseph’s College’s Richard W. Bailey Field.

There may not be anything new about seeing Skowhegan on championship Saturday, but for the River Hawks themselves, it’s still a new feeling — especially after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented anyone from playing in this game a season ago.

“It’s a new team, new kids, and it’s definitely a whole new feeling,” senior third baseman Mariah Whittemore said. “But it’s great.”

“We always know getting to a state championship game is a huge accomplishment,” said coach Lee Johnson, whose team earned the trip by beating Bangor 9-4 in the A North final. “It’s just a matter of getting our kids prepared. I don’t know that it’s any different because we missed a year, but it does feel good that we are playing again.”

Skowhegan’s Emily Dunbar celebrates on her way to home plate after hitting solo home run against Bangor during the Class A North championship Thursday at Cony Family Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The biggest difference, however, may be who the River Hawks are playing. Three-time defending champion Scarborough, which earned two of those titles with wins against Skowhegan, didn’t make it, and in its place will be Biddeford, which defeated Marshwood 5-2 in the A South final and beat Skowhegan for the title in 2016.

The River Hawks said they would have liked to add another chapter to their rivalry with Scarborough, but they know they’ll have their hands full with the 17-3 Tigers — particularly Laura Perreault and Baylor Wilkinson, who homered in Thursday’s A South final, and pitcher Charlotte Donovan.

“It’d be nice to have a shot at (Scarborough) again,” junior shortstop Jaycie Christopher said. “But at the same time, we’re happy to be in this position, and whoever we’re playing I know we’ll give them our best shot.”

“Whenever you’re playing the team from the south, you know you’re going to probably play the best team you have all year,” Johnson added. “They’re definitely going to be one of the better teams we’ve seen.”

Just getting to Saturday was an adventure enough for Skowhegan, which may be the annual A North favorite, but also had to deal with the same moving pieces and question marks all teams did after losing last season.

“I think going into this season, because a lot of us have played together since we were really little … we kind of knew that we had a shot,” Christopher said. “We were only returning two starters from two years ago, so we knew it was going to be a little bit of a rebuild and it was just going to be a matter of how we came together.”

The team has jelled since, with Johnson and players alike saying that the chemistry has become one of the River Hawks’ biggest strengths.

Skowhegan’s Emily Dunbar celebrates on her way to home plate after hitting a solo home run against Bangor during the Class A North championship Thursday at Cony Family Field in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“At the beginning of the season there was a lot of learning, a lot of teaching and a lot of coming together,” Whittemore said. “But as the season went on, we just came together. … The chemistry just started clicking in the beginning of the season.”

That carried Skowhegan into the playoffs, where wins over Edward Little and Oxford Hills set up the showdown with Bangor. The Rams had already ousted No. 1 Messalonskee and No. 4 Brunswick, but the River Hawks, led by Emily Dunbar (3-for-4, home run, three RBI) and Christopher (3-for-4, RBI, two runs), took the drama out of another upset bid early.

Johnson stressed going in that the Rams’ No. 8 seeding was nothing to take lightly.

“We had seen Bangor a couple of times, they had dealt with a lot of COVID adversity throughout the year,” Johnson said. “We knew that they were much better than what we had seen in our two meetings.”

Now the River Hawks will return to a stage with which their program has a lot of experience — even if, for most of the River Hawks players themselves, this will be a whole new ballgame.

“I’m not sure anyone has the experience at this point,” Johnson said. “I think the main part is preparing ourselves mentally for the game. … We know all the things we’re going to have to do to be successful. Approaching the game in the right frame of mind is going to be the key for us.”

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