Rite of spring: Changes ahead for softball teams

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AUBURN – It was a day that Kat McKay has been looking forward to since last fall.

When the former St. Dom’s all-star catcher was named coach of the Saints softball program last year, she’s been counting down the moments until the first pitch was thrown Monday when pitcher and catchers reported for the season’s first practice.

“As soon as I got the position last fall, I’ve been thinking about it,” McKay said. “I’ve got my glove out and am ready to go.”

McKay was named Miss Maine Softball in 2003 and won two regional titles and one state crown with the Saints. She’s been an assistant to Brian Kay the last two years, when St. Dom’s won 12 and 11 games, respectively. She’d also coached middle school softball and freshman and JV basketball at Poland.

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“It’s very exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking,” McKay said. “I’m a very young varsity coach, and I know I have a lot to learn. This year will definitely be a learning experience. We lost some key players, but we have some girls that I think are ready to step into leadership roles. I’m really looking forward to all of it.”

Pitchers and catchers get the head start on things this week, while the rest of the team begins next week. McKay has just five players practicing this week — including pitchers Lindsey Nance and Hannah Sterling — but it will be a significant stepping stone for the season to follow.

“This week is just trying to get back in softball mode,” McKay said. “They’re coming off either winter sports or a break between seasons. We’re just trying to get them back in focus. They’re going to be on the mound, and they’re going to be the leaders of our team this year.”

It will be a week for pitchers to strengthen their arms, while catchers do the same for their legs. Being a former catcher herself, McKay knows this week is important for catcher and pitchers to develop that connection they’ll need in the season ahead.

“We’ve got to build that relationship this week,” said McKay.

One of the changes this season is the location of the pitcher’s mound. Softball pitchers will now be hurling from 43 feet, instead of 40 feet. It is a rule that is meant to coincide with the college distances, while also aiding offense a little.

“I think it’s fantastic,” McKay said. “A lot of coaches have differing opinions about it, but I think it’s going to even out the game for the hitters. With a kid throwing 55 (mph) at 40 feet, back them up three feet. Hitters are going to have that extra three feet to think about what pitch is coming. I think it will make it not such a dominant pitcher’s game, which I think is a great thing.”

Another change will be Leavitt’s move to Western Class B. The Hornets have played in Eastern A for the last decade and won state titles in 2002 and 2003. Leavitt was in Western B and the Mountain Valley Conference when it last played Class B ball in the 1990s, but now the Hornets will play a KVAC B schedule and be in the Western B field.

“The biggest change is going to be travel,” Leavitt coach Pete Higgins said. “There’s significantly more travel in B than there was in A for us. Our longest trip last year was Morse. This year we have Rockland, Belfast, Camden, Mt. View, and Nokomis on our schedule. So there’s a significant difference in travel.”

Higgins says the level of pitching in Class B is still top notch. The biggest change in the level of play is that some of the B squads might be a little less deep than the A teams. So rather than have a team with six to eight real good players, a B squad might have just five or six. With just three starters back, the Hornets have a young club facing the challenge of a new league.

“We’re going to have a lot of young faces,” said Higgins, who returns pitcher Adrie Newton and catcher Tori Zupancic.

Higgins had the maximum 10 players allowed at practice Monday. He said this week allows for a little more specialization with the pitchers and catchers that you don’t get time for the rest of the season.

“We’re looking at form and technique,” Higgins said. “We spend a lot of time on where to pitch the ball, depending on the batter’s characteristics. Then we’ll work on game situations. So it location and technique. With the catchers, they’re learning how to set the pitch up. It’s always little things like that that you don’t always have a lot of time for when the season gets going.”

The defending Western C champs from Telstar have a potentially strong club back and started practicing with eight players. One pitcher was missing because of Career Week at the school. The Rebels had Monday’s workout in the gym but can see the luxury of being on the field not too far away. Having practiced in the parking lot through many preseasons, it is exciting for his team to see grass on the field instead of snow.

“Our kids are chomping at the bit to get outside,” Telstar coach Jim Lunney said. “It’s going to be an early spring. It’s going to be cool this week, but knock on wood, we’ll be on the field next week. We’ll at least be able to be on the outfield grass and be able to throw outside.”

Lunney says he’s having his players pitch and run regularly this week. He’ll have the pitcher throw a little and then have them run the stairs. He wants to build strength and help them avoid injury.

“They’ve got to get the legs in shape,” he said. “Catchers and pitchers, the legs are vital for them so they don’t get tired early.”

Lunney says the new distance for the mound may be an adjustment for some pitchers. He’s got a top-notch starter in Kayla Merrill, but some of the less experienced players around the state might struggle from that distance.

“I think the good pitcher will have an advantage,” he said. “Their ball moves. That three extra feet, it will move some, but the girls that aren’t real good pitchers, that three extra feet will kill them. The haves and the have nots will be further apart.”

Lunney’s Rebels lost pitcher/shortstop Candace Hall and third baseman Whitney Mills from last year’s team that lost in the Class C state final. Both will be significant losses, but Telstar has a solid club returning.

“We’ll miss them, but we’ve got a good nucleus back,” Lunney said. “We have a couple new kids that will help us. So we’re looking toward another strong season.”

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