Madison Day and Lauren Merrill’s Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School softball careers didn’t end the way they hoped.

Kirsten Pelletier didn’t get the closure she wanted from her Bates College career.

None  of them want this spring season their new team to end.

Kirsten Pelletier, a former Bates College standout, is playing for the University of Southern Maine as a graduate student this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

For Day and Merrill, this is their first year on the University of Southern Maine softball team. Same for Pelletier, but it’s also her last, having graduated from Bates in 2020 and utilizing a fifth year of eligibility as a graduate student at USM this season. Each of them has played a key role on a Huskies team that is in the midst of a memorable season, as has sophomore Hannah Shields of Buckfield, who didn’t get a season last year because of COVID-19.

The Huskies’ 2020 season ended before it could start. The 2021 campaign currently stands at 24 wins, one loss and one tie.

“I definitely knew we had the talent coming into the season, and just how it was going to come together on the field so quickly, I guess, has been the surprising part,” USM coach Sarah Jamo said. “We have a lot of veteran leadership, but the mix of younger kids has been instrumental in our success.”

In their first competitive seasons of college softball, Day and Shields are everyday starters — Day at shortstop, Shields in the outfield. At the plate, Day is hitting .350, while Shields is at .345 with a team-leading 16 walks and .500 on-base percentage.

“Last year, it was terrible that our season got taken, but I definitely think it did help me, personally, get prepared for what was to come this year,” Shields said.

The biggest change for Shields was her position in the field, after playing catcher for four years at Buckfield and working at infield during last year’s preseason.

USM’s Hannah Shields, a Buckfield graduate, reaches base during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

Jamo said Shields has flourished in the outfield, where she hasn’t made an error all season.

“She started in right field, beginning of the season, and then with some injuries she’s moved to center field, and she’s done a tremendous job,” Jamo said. “She turned into our best outfielder, and she’s even caught this season when (starter Ashley Tinsman) went down for a little bit. So she’s played three different positions for us already this season.”

Shields said she loves playing in the outfield. Jamo doesn’t know where Shields will play next year when Tinsman, a fifth-year senior, is gone, but admitted it’s a good problem to have.

Day hasn’t played like a freshman in the field, Jamo said.

“She reads the ball so well defensively, her game sense is so high. Her IQ. She knows what she needs to do with the ball when she has it,” Jamo said. “And I think the offense has been a bonus for us. Seeing what she does, she battles up to the plate, she gets the big hit, walk, bunt, whatever she needs to do, she’s kind of getting it done offensively, too.”

Day said she is surprising even herself with her batting stats (she was hitting .500 after a few games and .400 less than two weeks ago), but added, “I think I came out showing myself pretty good.”

USM’s Madison Day, an Oxford Hills graduate, slides into a base during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

She said wasn’t even sure she would land at USM, and continue to play with Merrill, until the last minute.

“I looked at other schools, but I wanted something close to home, so I guess it just kind of (came together) that we ended up both coming here,” Day said.

Merrill said she knew for a while that she wanted to come to USM, in part for its nursing program.

The duo has been playing together, year-round, since middle school, they said.

“I think we had that feeling like we’re not done yet,” Day said regarding not having a senior season, for which Oxford Hills had high expectations. “And when we both ended up coming here, we just kind of picked back up where we left off.”

Indeed, the former Vikings have paid immediate dividends for the Huskies.

Oxford Hills graduate Lauren Merrill pitches for the University of Southern Maine during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

Merrill isn’t the instant ace that she was for Oxford Hills, but she is 4-0 with a save in seven appearances in the circle. She’s also 4 for 16 at the plate, with four runs and two RBIs.

“That’s something I feel like a lot of players have a hard time with, but it’s just trying to not look at the negatives and just focus on the positives, and that I’ll get my chance. And when I get my chance, that’s when I just need to settle down and prove it,” Merrill said.

Merrill has been the third starter behind Pelletier and another fifth-year senior, Alexis Brown. Working behind those two has been tremendous for her, Jamo said.

“She pitched in some big spots. She came in and got the save against Rhode Island College for a conference game,” Jamo said. “She started a number of games and she’s done a really good job, and I think she’s taking something away from each appearance that is just going to be super valuable for her in the future.”

Merrill, Day and Shields are the future for the Huskies, but Pelletier is the present — as in the here and now, and a gift.

USM’s Kirsten Pelletier, a graduate student and former Bates College player, pitches during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

“She’s great,” Jamo said. “And she came in with great energy and she loves the sport. She loves to play. She loves to practice. She is very coachable, even as a fifth-year. She’s continuing to ask me questions and trying to learn new things, and her work ethic is tremendous. And I think all of those pieces have really added to the team.”

Graduate school at USM wasn’t on Pelletier’s radar when her Bates career was coming to an end last spring. But a text from USM senior Erin Martin — it said, “grad school, question mark,” according to Pelletier — jump-started Pelletier’s fifth-year reality.

“At the time, that seemed kind of crazy,” Pelletier, who played a Messalonskee High School, said. “But then as things kind of started to unfold even more, I knew I wanted to get my master’s and knew that (USM) was a good program, and decided that it made the most sense for me this year to kind of do both and be able to find the closure from the game that I really wanted to get, that I was unable to get last spring. So it all just kind of worked out.”

Pelletier said she had a feeling that the Huskies could be good this season, with Martin, Brown and Tinsman all coming back for their fifth years. Like Jamo, it was the underclassmen and their contributions that have been a surprise and a major reason the Huskies are 24-1-1 overall and 10-0 in Little East Conference play with the conference tournament on the horizon.

“It’s been different, for sure,” Pelletier said of joining USM after spending four years at Bates. “I don’t think many athletes can say that they’ve played on two different college teams and graduated from both, but I think here, there’s just a love and passion for the game, and it’s so evident, whether we’re at practice or after practice, and just hanging out, like everyone cares so much about what’s best for the program. I fit into that so well because that is where my values lie as well. So definitely unique and different, but, yeah, it worked out.”

Pelletier’s work on the mound has been a big key to the Huskies’ success. She is 9-0 with nine complete games in nine starts, to go along with one save in three relief appearances.

“I definitely hold myself to high expectations, especially coming into a new program, feeling like I had to prove myself or definitely earn my spot on this team,” Pelletier said. “Nothing’s ever given in the game. So really making sure that I put my time and effort in, so when I stepped on the mound that I’ve earned it, and knowing that I’ve earned it and I put in the time and to succeed there.”

USM’s Madison Day, an Oxford Hills graduate, is congratulated by head coach Sarah Jamo during a game earlier this season. Cullen McIntyre photo

Two other area athletes have been involved with USM’s success this season. Freshman Jordan Cummings from Edward Little has been used as a pinch runner, scoring eight runs. Freshman Katherine Morse from Dirigo has a pair of pinch-hit chances.

The Huskies have an academic hurdle to clear, with classes ending this week before finals next week. Then it’s all softball, and hopefully plenty of it.

“They really do love the game, and I love the game, and I think losing last year kind of gave us that perspective of, like, whatever it takes, no matter what, we’re going to do everything we can to make this happen,” Jamo said. “And I think that’s really been the mantra.”


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