Less than a year removed from graduating college, Mariah Dunbar did not plan to become a high school head coach.

But then came a unique opportunity to lead her own high school softball program.

Dunbar, 22, is the new head softball coach at Madison Area Memorial High School. She is one of two young softball coaches looking to make an impact in central Maine this spring. Carrabec head coach Bailey Dunphy, 24, is the other.

“I was definitely just looking forward to doing my job for the first year and getting that under my belt, and (later) maybe stepping into a coaching job,” said Dunbar, who is a second-grade teacher at Madison Elementary School. “It was definitely worth applying and getting it. I’m really excited for this year. I love the girls, they’re working really hard. It’s a good first year for sure.”

Dunbar graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta last spring. Dunphy is a 2021 Thomas College graduate.

“Softball has kind of been on the backburner in this area, so this season has been all about bringing it back to the light,” Dunphy said. “Getting the younger kids excited, getting (the veterans) excited. Just having a fun time out on the field. I love softball, and I want to show everyone else how much fun it can be.


Players on both teams say it’s easy to communicate with young coaches, because they are relatable.


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“It’s a lot different than what we’ve had in the past,” Madison pitcher Kylee Furbush said. “But I think it’s good having a younger coach, because we can relate to (Dunbar) more. She has a lot of experience playing softball. She can give us tips. It’s been great having her as a coach.”

“(Dunphy is) a younger coach and she definitely understands what we need to get better, so that’s beneficial,” added senior center fielder and captain Riley Crocker. “She takes the time to focus on each position and how we can really improve ourselves in each position. She doesn’t just focus on one (team) member, she really understands what the Carrabec team needs.”

Coaches in all sports face different kind of challenges each season.

Those challenges, athletic directors say, are magnified for young and inexperienced coaches, like Dunphy and Dunbar.

“Varsity coaches have a lot of things that are expected of them,” said Madison Athletic Director Al Veneziano, who previously coached the school’s girls basketball and softball team decades. “They have deadlines for paperwork. We have things that need to be reported to the Maine Principles’ (Association). They have to provide the athletic director with all this information. (They have to make sure) uniforms are passed out and fit. Then, with the (sports) fundraising we do, you have to be organized and make the kids want to come out and do the fundraising and do that little bit extra. As far as I’m seeing, (Dunbar is) very structured and very mature in that for her age.”


Veneziano, a Maine Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, added earning the respect of the team’s seniors, who are close in age to Dunbar, can also be challenging.

“For somebody her age, (the hurdle) is being close to the same age as our seniors,” Veneziano said. “I think that might be a little bit of a hurdle. But she seems to have that respect from them and has them playing hard. She’s really met that hurdle. I think the younger players see the older players and kind of go off their lead and have that respect.”

“The biggest hurdle you have (as a young coach) are these curveballs that get thrown at you that you didn’t see coming,” added Carrabec athletic director Erik Carey, who has 30 years of coaching experience, and also coaches school’s boys basketball and baseball teams. “Sometimes it’s dealing with different personalities. The odd dynamics of dealing with teenage athletes. Even in your 30th year, you run into one you haven’t seen before. The more you coach, the more you can anticipate those things before they even happen. I think that can happen with any young coach.”

Dunbar takes over a program that reached the Class C title game from 2013-2019, winning four Gold Gloves. Last season, longtime head coach Chris LeBlanc — also the school’s assistant principal and athletic director — resigned due to a medical issue. Assistant coach Heath Cowan took over for the rest of the season. Madison, in a rebuilding year, finished 9-8.

The Bulldogs are 3-4 this season.

“A lot of the girls have dug deep to get the wins that we’ve gotten so far,” said Dunbar, who helped lead the Skowhegan softball team to the 2019 Class A North title. “Sticking together, digging out through all the ups and downs of the game, I think that’s very impressive for the first year. And working hard. Focus has been a lot better.”


New Madison softball coach Mariah Dunbar demonstrates field positioning and technique during an April 30 practice in Madison. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

Dunbar also has help in the dugout.

Heath Cowan is on the Madison staff for one more season. Cowan, who is the head coach of the UMA women’s basketball program, was recently named the new UMA softball head coach. The program will debut in the fall.

“Mariah has always been a competitor, and some of the things you have to deal with as a coach are things you don’t have to deal with as a player,” Cowan said. “I’ve always said, the Xs and Os part is the easy part. It’s the (Maine Principals’ Association) rules, the parents, dealing with the school. That’s the longevity piece. They do a great job, they know the game. But the ones who stick with it are the ones that can deal with reporters, deal with officials, deal with parents. I think Mariah has a great sentiment for it. I think Dunphy does, too. Both of them are super competitive. It is fun (to see).”

Cowan has a unique link to both coaches. He was the head coach of the Carrabec softball team in 2018, Dunphy’s senior season.

Dunphy is one of the most decorated softball players in Carrabec history. She was a two-time Mountain Valley Conference Player of the Year with the Cobras. Dunphy started 85 of her 86 games for Thomas from 2019-2022 (the 2020 season was not played due to the coronavirus pandemic. She finished with a .486 career batting average, four home runs and 67 RBIs.

Dunphy dove straight into coaching after college, coaching middle school softball before taking over the Carrabec program. Now in Class D, the Cobras are 3-3.

Like Dunbar, Dunphy also leans on some help from her assistant coaches, which includes her father, Troy Dunphy, a former Carrabec baseball head coach. Bailey Dunphy said she’s still learning to juggle the variety of responsibilities that come with being a high school coach.

“I’m so focused on softball, sometimes I forget that human aspect of the game,” Dunphy said. “You can have a great practice plan laid out, and then get a text message saying, ‘Hey Coach, I’m not going to be there, my ankle’s messed up.’

“I think just working with the players has been almost a learning curve. Every team you’re on, it’s a new set of people. New relationships have to be formed. I don’t want to say that’s a hurdle, but that’s just something that, at the beginning of every season, you just have to form those relationships and make it work for you and the program.”

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