The Central Maine Community College softball team is playing in its first national tournament, starting Monday in DuBois, Pennsylvania. The team is, front row, from left: Makayla Gross, Emily Sanfacon, Emily Wormwood, Julia Noel and Olivia Gallan; back row, from left, Olivia Scott, Abby Ferland, Avery Herrick, Haley Fernald and Maria Dostie. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — The trip to DuBois, Pennsylvania, is more than 600 miles and takes nearly 11 hours by car, but for the Central Maine Community College softball team, the distance and time are small inconveniences to reach the destination.

Several players made it clear that they would drive 5,000 miles just to represent the Mustangs at the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Small College World Series, which starts Monday. The team is eager for another reason — this is the first time the CMCC softball program made it to a national tournament.

Central Maine earned the No. 5 seed in the 10-team tournament by way of an at-large bid. The Mustangs will face No. 4 Penn State-Schuylkill at 2 p.m. in their first game of the double-elimination tournament. CMCC , which is leaving for Dubois on Saturday, finished the regular season with a 22-10-1 record.

“We have never, ever been to nationals,” CMCC coach Bruce Robertson, who has been at the helm for the past four years, said. “This is the first time softball has been to nationals. The first two years, we took our lumps. Once I was able to recruit the right players … we started taking off.”

Robertson said recruiting has been the key to the Mustangs’ success.

“As soon as our season is done, I am on the road and attending a high school game every night,” he said. 

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Robertson added he was not that surprised CMCC got the bid to compete in the tourney.

“I expected it. I wanted it badly because I thought this is the year to make it happen,” Robertson said. “We were nationally ranked from the get-go. It is just that we were (at the) lower end — (ranked) seven, eight, nine — and we kind of danced around that area. When the rankings came out, we came in fifth. That was a shock to be honest. We thought we were going to get that bid, but be eight, nine, 10 …”

The advent of COVID-19 put a strain on the softball program in 2019 and 2020.

“We had a really good start, and COVID happened,” he said. “We kind of had to totally rebuild. We had three players return from that year and everybody else was new. But players we brought in are really good players.

“(Athletic director Dave Gonyea) is one of the reasons why I think we are successful right now because during the COVID year, he challenged all the coaches (to keep recruiting).”

Robertson pointed out that this year’s softball team is a tight-knit group and their devotion to each other has made all the difference.

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“Right from the get-go, we did a week of preseason before the school started and they had a week to bond together — and they formed that unity right from the get-go,” he said. 

Robertson’s confidence in the Mustangs is high heading into the national tournament.

“If we don’t come out and be aggressive and support each other from the get-go, we are in trouble,” he said. “But when we play our game, we can hang with just about anybody. I think we’ve got a really good shot to at least to go somewhat deep into it. I am not sure we are going all the way, but we’ll see.”

Some players were pleasantly surprised to see the Mustangs not only receive the bid, but earn the No. 5 seed.

“I was really in shock when I heard that,” freshman Avery Herrick, of Dexter, said, “because the highest we’ve been is seventh.”

But Herrick, the starting pitcher who is majoring in nursing, is no stranger to long drives. She made a similar road trip, to Virginia, as member of the national-title winning CMCC women’s basketball team in March.

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“I got to experience it, and after I got back, I am like, ‘If we don’t do this with my softball team, I am going to be very upset,’” Herrick said. “So, from Day 1, I knew we can go to the nationals. I get to do it now with my team and my sister, Addyson, who is also on the team, too. Also my birthday is next week.” 

Robertson invested a lot of time in recruiting the pitcher who leads the USCAA with 127 strikeouts this season.

“She has been a player I talked to since she was a sophomore in high school, and I followed her for a few years,” he said. “I knew she was that type of pitcher that she has a lot of passion for the game. When she is pitching, she has command of that circle.”

Herrick said she enjoys playing on a small team “so we have a great connection (with each other) …”

Starting catcher and captain Abby Ferland had faith that the Mustangs would receive an invite.

“You know I knew we had a good enough team to get the bid,” Ferland said. “I was shocked when we moved from the seventh seed to the fifth seed. We weren’t done, yet. We still have business we have to finish.”

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While being a tight group has been important to the Mustangs’ success, their on-field play also has been worthy of the trip to Pennsylvania.

“We are all super versatile,” Ferland, a Monmouth Academy graduate, said. “We can all be put in different positions, if push comes to shove, and we are all very close, and I feel like that helps us out on the field. We can read each a other really well.”

“She is our captain, catcher and our first baseman,” Robertson said. “She is kind of the heart and soul of the team. She kind of makes things flow a little bit smoother for me.”

Freshman Olivia Gallan, an Oxford Hills graduate who is majoring in life sciences, is the last person opponents want on base in a close game. She leads the USCAA in stolen bases with 47.

“She is that fast; she is a machine,” Robertson said. “She is by far one of our best players. At Oxford Hills, she played second base. But for us, she runs (our) outfield.”

Like her teammates, Gallan thought the Mustangs deserved a bid because “we were in the coaches’ poll every week.”

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“I think all the girls here actually really love softball, and I think playing just to play is different than playing because you love it — and you play a lot better when you do something you love — just like most things,” she said. “Based on the first few practices, I thought we were really a good team and had great chemistry, so I thought we were going to go pretty far.”

Haley Fernald, of Bridgton, said the Mustangs were just getting started when the season came to a close — so she thought.

“I was so happy to continue the season,” she said. “We really powered up at the end, and to bring that forward to nationals, is awesome.”

The third baseman said it is an even 50-50 split between offense and defense when it comes to CMCC’s team strength.

“We have a lot batting strength and a lot fielding strength as well — especially behind pitching,” Fernald said.

Come Saturday morning, the Mustangs will embrace the long journey because they know they are heading to the nationals.

“We are excited to be there,” Robertson said. “That was our goal. CM has been known for basketball. If you are thinking softball in college in Maine, think CM. That’s what I want.”

The Mustangs’ success has certainly earned some attention.

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