Oxford Hills’ Madison Starbird gobbles up a grounder before throwing out the batter against Edward Little in May. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
There was one glaring difference when Oxford Hills and Skowhegan met in the Class A North softball regional final.
Both teams had big hits, and both starting pitchers held their own. But the Vikings had the advantage in the field, and that helped lead them to a victory over the previously unbeaten and defending champion Indians.
“Defensively, we played really well. We didn’t hurt ourselves,” Oxford Hills coach Cindy Goddard said after Tuesday’s win. “We didn’t put extra people on base. We didn’t give up many walks, so we didn’t give them the opportunity — I mean, Skowhegan had to produce all their runs, so I think that’s always a bonus.”
It was a continuing trend that has endured all season for the Vikings. Their defense seemed to often come up with the big plays — and, maybe more importantly, didn’t let routine plays turn into mistakes, and mistakes into negative big plays.
“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence on the field because I know that they’re behind me, and even if I let a nice, powerful hit, the defense is there behind me to get it,” Vikings sophomore pitcher Lauren N. Merrill said.
Confidence was something that was lacking for the Vikings when they lost to Skowhegan in the 2017 regional final. They committed eight errors, and Merrill admitted after Tuesday’s game that nerves psyched them out in that game.
On Tuesday, however, the Vikings were confident, according to senior third baseman Kenzie Kahkonen, who started the first put-out against the Indians by reaching up to glove a high chopper over her head before calmly firing to first baseman Brooke Carson for the out.
“It was just a first-instinct kind of thing,” Kahkonen said. “You got to get the job done, so might as well get it done as quick as you can, right?
“We were ready to go.”
The experience of last year’s loss helped the Vikings this year. So, too, does their experience in the infield.
“(Most of) our infield is all seniors,” Kahkonen said. “We’ve (played together) since seventh grade, so, I mean, we kind of know what everyone’s going to do in different scenarios because we’re just that close.”
Teaming up with Kahkonen around the bases are second baseman Madison Starbird and shortstop Kaisa Heikkinen and Carson, who is a sophomore.
Having a veteran infield behind her has been a plus for Merrill, who is more of a contact pitcher than a power thrower.
“She’s really fortunate she’s got a great defensive team behind her. So if she thinks she has to strike everyone out, that’s not really the case,” Goddard said after a win over Lewiston during the regular season.
That game featured a rare double play after the Vikings’ only error of the game earlier in the inning.
Tuesday’s win didn’t feature any double plays, but the Vikings’ defense did have some blemishes in the scorebook. Yet none of their three errors led to any runs being scored.
“They’re just relentless. I mean, they did a good job defensively making some key plays,” Skowhegan coach Lee Johnson said.
The defense will need to step up again in the state final against defending state champ Scarborough, which put up some big run totals in both the regular season and the postseason. Defense is something the Vikings pride themselves on, according to Kahkonen, and they can back it up with a confidence that has grown in a year’s time, and even more after a resounding win over Skowhegan to get to Saturday’s state championship game.
Oxford Hills pitcher Lauren N. Miller throws to the plate as shortstop Kaisa Heikkinen (4) gets in defensive position during last Saturday’s Class A North semifinal at Gouin Athletic Complex. (Lee Horton/Sun Journal File Photo)Oxford Hills’ Kenzie Kahkonen gets ready to tag out Hampden Academy’s Brooklyn Scott, who was trying to stretch a double into a triple during last week’s Class A North semifinal at Gouin Athletic Complex. (Lee Horton/Sun Journal)Oxford Hills’ Kaisa Heikkinen prepares to tag out Edward Little’s Abby Russell during the softball game in Paris in May. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)Skowhegan’s Mariah Dunbar (9) dives back to second base before Oxford Hills’ Kaisa Heikkinen (4) can apply the tag in the Class A North softball championship game at Winslow High School on Tuesday. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)