Oxford Hills freshman Lauren Merrill delivers a pitch midway through a Class A North semifinal against Lawrence on Saturday.

Oxford Hills freshman Lauren Merrill delivers a pitch midway through a Class A North semifinal against Lawrence on Saturday.

PARIS — After reaching the regional semifinals last year, the Oxford Hills softball team brought back basically the same team this season, save for the pitching staff.

Freshman Lauren Merrill had big shoes to fill with the departure of Cody Akers and Ericka Whitman, but Merrill has pitched well enough for the Vikings to take the next step in the postseason.

“Definitely every game I think I felt pressure,” Merrill said after the Vikings’ win over Lawrence in this year’s regional semifinals. “But this one, I was a little more relaxed — still really nervous, but my teammates definitely helped me.”

Part of Merrill’s relaxation can be attributed to growing up as the season has gone along. It’s a campaign that saw the Vikings go 11-5 during the regular season, good enough for the No. 3 seed in the Class A North tournament.

“When we started out the beginning of the season, we knew Lauren has been a good pitcher, and we thought we had all the other pieces together,” Oxford Hills coach Cindy Goddard said. “We had most of our defense back. Defensively, we’re pretty solid in every spot. So we knew that pitching was going to be one of the key elements, and at the beginning of the season Lauren struggled finding her spots and just making the adjustment to the bigger hitters.

“And as the season has gone along, she has just matured on the mound. Our team, if she’s on and having a great day, our team, we’re going to playing that much better.”

Merrill’s high school debut, on the road at eventual No. 5 seed Lewiston, was a solid one. She scattered seven hits, giving up three runs (only one earned), while striking out four batters and not walking any. Goddard said she “did well” and “kept her composure,” though the Vikings’ defense didn’t. Merrill didn’t receive much run support, either, in a 3-2 walk-off loss.

There have been bad games for each of the Vikings’ three phases of the game, including Merrill in the circle.

A late-season home game against eventual No. 4 seed Bangor was one of the games where everything clicked. Merrill tossed her only shutout of the season and finished a home run short of the cycle at the plate in a 4-0 win.

“She’s been a great hitter,” Goddard said after that game. “She’s an all-around softball player.”

Oxford Hills also had an all-around great day in the field defensively that day, with the gloves stealing the show from Merrill, who will gladly take an out any way she can get one.

“She relies on her defense,” Goddard said. “We have a pretty good defensive team, and she relies on them to kind of help her out.”

“She hasn’t been a pitcher that’s been, like, strikes out a lot of people,” Goddard added. “So throughout the whole season, you give up a hit and it’s, ‘OK, so what comes next?’ And I think that’s her mentality.”

Merrill needed that mentality Saturday against Lawrence after giving up a triple in the second inning. That runner ended up scoring on a single later in the frame, but Merrill allowed just one hit the rest of the way. She said she had to brush off the big hit.

Those hits were few against both Bangor and Lawrence, as well as many other games throughout the season, including Merrill throwing a two-hitter in the regional quarterfinals against Brewer. Bangor’s Don Stanhope and Lawrence’s Joey Marcoux both tipped their caps to Merrill after losses to Oxford Hills.

“She spins the ball a lot, and changes her speeds well. She’s got good location,” Marcoux said Saturday. “She just kept us off balance, I think is more what it is. You get in front of a slow one, then she throws one faster and you’re ready for the slow one. She keeps you guessing. She’s a nice little pitcher.”

Stanhope also mentioned Merrill’s ability to spin the ball.

Merrill mentioned her change-up and curve ball as effective pitches against Lawrence. The former helped her end the Bulldogs’ season.

“When we got the first two outs (of the seventh), I felt relieved. But then on the last one, after (Gretta Knowlton) fouled off a couple, I felt really pressured,” Merrill said. “But then I just kind of relaxed and I threw that change-up again, and she ended up popping up to (catcher Anna Piirainen), so that was good.”

“She’s been working on her off-speed and location so that she kind of keeps them off balance a little bit,” Goddard said after the Bangor win.

Merrill will have her work cut out for her — as will the entire Oxford Hills team — in Wednesday’s regional final against top-seeded Skowhegan. The Indians are coming off a 12-0 win over Bangor in the regional semifinals, and they boast not only the KVAC Class A Player of the Year in junior pitcher Ashley Alward, but sophomore pitcher Sydney Ames was also a first-team selection.

Merrill will have to try and match either one of those fire-ballers if the Vikings want to reach their first state final since 1999.

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Left to right, Oxford Hills’ Kaisa Heikkinen, Lauren Merrill and Kenzie Kahkonen celebrate after beating Lawrence in a Class A North semifinal on Saturday in South Paris.

Left to right, Oxford Hills’ Kaisa Heikkinen, Lauren Merrill and Kenzie Kahkonen celebrate after beating Lawrence in a Class A North semifinal on Saturday in South Paris.

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