AUBURN — The first activity of practice Tuesday was counting.

Before the gloves and bats came out and softballs got tossed around, the St. Dom’s varsity team began its preseason with a head count.

With low numbers this spring, St. Dom’s is in jeopardy of not having enough to field a varsity squad. It will be determined later this week whether the Saints have a team to play a varsity schedule. If not, they’ll opt for a junior varsity schedule as an alternative.

“We’re going to give it a couple of days and see if we can round up a couple of people and go from there,” said Gene Keene, St. Dom’s athletic director and a member of the Maine Principals’ Association’s softball committee. “We just want to do what is in the best interest of the program. It’s a young group. We want them to be in a situation where they can be competitive enough to develop.”

The Saints have 11 players at the moment. There was a hint of another potential recruit talked about at the first practice Tuesday.

“It’s a different feeling, especially being a senior” catcher Jacqueline Schmitz said. “It could be a varsity sport again next year, but I won’t be here.  It’s tough to stay positive, but I’ll do my best. Who knows, we may be able to recruit someone else.”

Schmitz and pitcher Johanna Cullenberg are the lone seniors. Though opening day of practice is often filled with excitement and positive energy, the Saints looked dejected as they gathered with Keene and coach Scott Lovejoy before practice.

“I was kind of nervous about it,” said Cullenberg, who practiced all last week as pitchers and catchers began drills. “We’d already been practicing for a week and I’ve been excited about it. I just want us all to do our best and play as hard as we can.”

Lovejoy had four players working with him last week, Schmitz behind the plate and pitchers Cullenberg, sophomore Allie Veinote and freshman Janelle Bryant.

“Pitching is not an issue,” Lovejoy said. “That’s exciting to have pitching.”

Building the rest of the roster may be a challenge. Since softball needs nine players on the field, the roster must have more depth than hockey or basketball.

“It very uncomfortable,” Lovejoy said. “The seniors, their heads are not in a good place right now. We’re going to stay positive and the girls are trying to reach out and see if they can get a few more to join us and we’ll teach them to play.”

A number of programs have resorted to going to a JV schedule in recent years. The Telstar girls’ basketball team did it a few years ago and still barely had enough to field a varsity basketball squad this winter. Winthrop didn’t play a varsity girls’ basketball schedule this season either, hoping to have better numbers next year.

St. Dom’s has even tried this option with the girls’ hockey program. Schmitz certainly knows — she was on that team too. The program resorted to a JV schedule a year ago and returned to the varsity level this past winter.

“Our level and our skills were definitely better than the JV level,” Schmitz said. “It was nice to be able to win games. Hopefully, that could happen this year rather than having our record not be so good.”

Keene met with the players before practice Tuesday and updated them on the situation. Only seven girls were in attendance. He explained the options and the pros and cons. The players tried to prepare themselves for whatever decision comes later this week.

“We sat down with them and I told them that we’ll give it a couple of days and see if we can round up a few more kids,” Keene said. “If we have 13 or 14 kids, that’s no problem.  We’ll move forward at the varsity level. But, then I explained that we have to look at what’s best for St. Dom’s and what’s best for the future.”

Though the disappointment was clear on the faces of the players, they acknowledged that if the team has to play a JV schedule, it might be the best thing for the program.

“To play at a JV level is more beneficial to us and the future of the softball here at St. Dom’s,” Schmitz said. “But it definitely stinks being a senior and having it be my best sport. Having to face it isn’t the best feeling. It’s what’s best for the school and hopefully, we’ll figure it out.”

Keene says he feels bad for his two seniors, but commends them for the leadership and character they’ve shown in tough circumstances.

“Those seniors are very good and intelligent girls,” Keene said. “They’ve invested in St. Dom’s. I think they understand things, and they want to do what’s best for St. Dom’s.”

The St. Dom’s softball program has been one of the more consistent and successful teams in the area. The Saints were often a tourney contender in Western C while in the Western Maine Conference, and won regional titles in 2001 and 2002, and the state crown in 2001.

Like many schools and programs, numbers have dwindled in recent years. After a losing season last spring, the Saints lost a number of seniors that didn’t return. 

“We had a couple eighth-grade players last year,” Cullenberg said. “Some left the school. So we were kind of nervous about the numbers. We’ll do our best in practice and have fun. Staying positive will be the best thing.”

In a small Class C school, the softball team is also up against three other programs. St. Dom’s has female athletes running track, playing tennis and JV lacrosse. If each program draws 25 students, that’s 100 girls from the school.

“We don’t have 100 girls,” Keene said. “It’s awfully hard to sustain those numbers.”

Whatever the decision will be, Keene hopes it will be a positive step forward for the program. Playing a JV schedule might feel like a step back, but the hockey team has shown it can be beneficial. It is certainly a better alternative than not finishing a season and facing a harsh penalty from the Maine Principals’ Association.

“That worked out well,” Keene said of the hockey situation. “We ended up getting a few extra kids out. They stuck with the program. This year, we weren’t in great shape with 11 or 12 to start the season. It’s our understanding that we’ll get a half dozen coming in next year and we’re only losing three. So it’s getting better.”

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