FRYEBURG — Growing up, Mackenzie Buzzell remembers watching Fryeburg Academy win three softball state championships in four years, and she wanted to win one herself one day..

Now after going the first three years of her high school career without making a state final, let alone winning one, Buzzell is part of a trio of Raiders seniors who finally can say they made it to championship game.

Buzzell, the Raiders’ starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, is part of a backbone for Fryeburg that includes catcher Makayla Cooper and pitcher Nicole Bennett.

“All three of them just have been together since little kids, doing everything together. And it shows,” Fryeburg coach Fred Apt said. “They’ve been solid softball players who buy into the program, buy what we’re teaching, and share what we’re teaching. They share with the young kids.

“They share anything they’ve been taught, and they’re willing to make the younger kids better. They put the program first.”

The trio has had to teach, with much of the rest of the Raiders’ roster freshmen and sophomores.

“Us three have the most experience,” Cooper said. “This is my fourth year on varsity, and making it to playoffs every single year. And we are a young team, so I really think that stepping up and showing the younger kids what it means to be a part of Fryeburg Academy softball is something to special to be held.”

Fryeburg softball has been synonymous in the past with state championships. The Raiders went to five straight state finals from 2008-2012, winning in 2008, 2009 and 2011. However, they haven’t been to the title game since 2012, when they lost to Old Town — the same program they’ll face on Saturday in the Class B state championship.

Not that this season’s success was a given.

“I don’t think we feel as much pressure, especially this year. We just don’t feel as pressured because we’re such a young team,” Bennett said. “At the beginning of the season we didn’t think we’d come this far.”

Bennett said it wasn’t until late in the year that the Raiders started rounding into form.

“We really came together and were like ‘look, we need to really get our stuff together.’ And they looked up to us as role models, and they started to learn from us,” Bennett said. “We’re all coming together as a whole now, and the pieces are coming together.”

The building blocks are Bennett, Cooper and Buzzell. They fit the baseball/softball cliche of being strong up the middle, and Apt said sophomore shortstop Tina LeBlanc thinks she belongs in that discussion too.

Apt said that Buzzell really started to take control of the field this year. That showed in a comeback win over Wells in the Class B South final.

“I remember when (Wells) had their big inning, and we had a timeout on the field, and I was in center field and the other outfielders came over, I could see kind of the look of a little bit of panic, but I just remember saying ‘it’s not over. We’ve scored way more than three runs in an inning before,'” Buzzell said. “I knew that we definitely weren’t going to give up, and we had that determination to come back and battle all the way till the end.”

The battery of Bennett and Cooper, meanwhile, has been strong for awhile.

“I’ve known Makayla, we’ve grown up since preschool together, and she’s always caught for me,” Bennett said. “We’ve just always been best friends, so that really helps because a lot of people don’t have that bond that me and Coop have. It’s pretty special.”

“This is the first year in probably 15 years that I haven’t called pitches, because I know those two can work well,” Apt said. “And they know what I want. Coop can get it across to Nicole ‘this is what we need in this situation.'”

The trio has also made an impact at the plate. Buzzell starts things off at the top, while also flashing some power. Bennett and Cooper have slotted into the heart of the order. There’s a fourth senior on the team, Alexandria Fraize, who is in her first year of high school softball. Fraize has become the go-to courtesy runner for Bennett.

“I know that being the leadoff that it’s my job to get things started. I also know everybody else behind me in the lineup is there to contribute behind me,” Buzzell said. “So I know ‘I got to get on base, and then the rest of my teammates will do the rest.’ I think we all feel really confident in each other to get the job done.”

“They all have different aspects of hitting. And what Nicole can share is a little bit than what Coop can share,” Apt said. “I want my young players … to learn from everything these guys can teach them.”

The teaching started in the preseason, when the Raiders took their customary April vacation trip to Connecticut. Apt roomed Buzzell with three freshmen fielders, Bennett with the young pitchers, Cooper with the second- and third-string catchers.

“I know that there’s no jealousy. They’re going to teach them the right thing,” Apt said. “And they care about this program. You know, the tradition. All they talk about is ‘we want to be on that banner.’ They really care about the tradition of the program.”

Buzzell said the possibility of her career ending in the regional final crossed her mind, but then she remembered that softball is supposed to be fun. That meant leaving everything she had on the field. Bennett did the same, Cooper too. The young players followed suit.

“Everybody was laying everything out there what they had that night,” Buzzell said.

That takes all the pressure off the Raiders in Saturday’s state final, according to Bennett.

“I don’t feel so much pressured just because there’s only two teams in Class B that are still practicing. To make it this far, it’s quite an honor,” Bennett said. “I just don’t feel as pressured because win or lose, we made it this far and I couldn’t be any more proud.”

“I think their demeanor is going to be huge,” Apt said. “It’s tough to say ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ but they haven’t. At least they’ve been to the regional finals before. I think that alone, how they go, we go … and that’s more than just hitting. Mentally, how are they going to be mentally? They keep us loose.

“They’ll be in here joking before the game, before we leave, and we need that.”

Before the trio leaves, Apt made sure to bring in their replacements — whoever they may be. The Raiders carried 16 players on their roster for the first time Apt can remember, knowing that he needed as many players as possible to learn from Buzzell, Bennett and Cooper.

“They’re all blue-collar workers, those three, and they share that,” Apt said. “I mean, they’re talented obviously, but they’re blue collar. They work their (butts) off. I can’t say enough good about their work ethics. And they share that. And that’s been through the program, but they learned it.”

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Fryeburg Academy seniors, left to right, Mackenzie Buzzell, Makayla Cooper and Nicole Bennett have been the backbone for a Raiders team that has returned to the Class B softball state championship game.

Fryeburg Academy seniors, left to right, Mackenzie Buzzell, Makayla Cooper and Nicole Bennett have been the backbone for a Raiders team that has returned to the Class B softball state championship game.

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