Apr. 25—GORHAM — Erin Martin won a high school softball state championship at Biddeford High. So did Kirsten Pelletier at Messalonskee. Ashley Tinsman played on a top-notch high school program at Cape Elizabeth, then three years at the University of Maine.
But the three of them have no question where this year’s University of Southern Maine softball team ranks in their careers.
“This is the best team I’ve ever played on,” said Martin, a fifth-year senior outfielder completing her graduate work in business at USM, with Tinsman and Pelletier nodding in agreement.
And it’s easy to see why they think that way.
The Huskies own a 22-1-1 record. They have won their last 11 games and are outscoring their opponents, 169-57.
It’s the best start in the program’s 46-year history, with only the 2004 team coming close. That team was 20-3-1 after 24 games and would finish with a 33-11-1 record, losing to Western Connecticut in the Little East Conference championship game.
“I had feeling right away that this team was going to be special,” said Tinsman, a fifth-year senior catcher who is leading the Huskies in eight hitting categories. “I remember talking to Erin before season and saying this is going to be our year. I could feel it, everything just seemed to click right away.”
Head coach Sarah Jamo, the former Greely High and UMaine star pitcher, praised the leadership of Tinsman, Martin, Pelletier and fellow fifth-year senior Alexis Brown, saying they took ownership of this team in the fall.
“Having those four for leadership is unbelievable,” said Jamo. “I had a large freshman class coming in too, so that balance was really great all through the fall, having the freshmen being able to learn from those seniors. They were putting in workouts beyond my requirements. That kind of really set the tone.”
Jamo knew she had good pitching. But hitting? “I think the offense has been a surprise for me,” she said.
There probably aren’t many coaches who expect this kind of hitting: the Huskies are batting .360 as a team and averaging 7.4 runs per game (second in the conference in both categories to Eastern Connecticut).
But it’s not like USM is winning by simply mashing the ball. The Huskies’ team earned run average is 1.73 and they have committed just 17 errors — compared to 43 by their opponents.
“I feel like it’s the perfect combination this year,” said Martin. “Everyone is super motivated because last year was taken away from us. We have a really good freshman class, we have seniors who stayed on and the transfers. Everyone bought into working hard and having the same goal.”
BENEFITS OF A LOST SEASON
Jamo said the seeds of this season’s success were actually planted a year ago, when the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic even before the Huskies took the field.
“It gave the girls some perspective and some motivation entering into the fall,” said Jamo.
And that’s when this team really took off. NCAA changes to the fall practice schedule allowed Jamo to meet with the players over a longer period of time.
“With wonderful fall we had weather-wise, we were able to practice right up to the week before Thanksgiving,” said Jamo. “My contact with the players was regular and consistent and we were able to work on more skill-specific things so that when came back in January, we were more ready to go. … We were able to focus on the team aspect of it.”
This is the season Jamo has been building toward since she took over in 2013. The Huskies had won only four games the previous year, losing a school-record 36.
“Each year you set goals,” she said. “What was realistic? What could we do? Sometimes it was 10 wins. Can we get to 10 wins? That’s what it was the first year (USM won nine games her first year) and then it was about building from there.
“For me, it is not about wins. It’s all about building a whole program. I’m lucky. I have (USM baseball coach) Ed Flaherty right next door. He’s been a tremendous help, the way he goes about things. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
She said the renovation of their softball field in 2017 was also a pivotal moment. New dugouts, stadium seating, a patio behind home plate, a press box and lights were installed. “It was a huge investment by the university in our program,” she said.
Tinsman called it one of the best college softball facilities in New England.
But Jamo knows it takes more than just a facility to be successful. It takes players. And this year she has them.
When Tinsman, Martin and Brown — players who lost their senior season in 2020 because of the pandemic — committed to returning this year after the NCAA granted all athletes another year of eligibility, she said the pieces fell into place.
Then there was Pelletier, who had an outstanding career at Bates, where she was a first-team NESCAC selection in 2018. She was sitting on her couch after Bates’ 2020 season ended when she got a text from Martin, who is a close friend. It essentially said, hey, if you’re thinking about going to grad school, why not come here to play with us?
“I didn’t waste any time,” said Martin.
“At the time it seemed crazy but the more I thought about it, getting my Master’s was something I wanted to do,” said Pelletier, who is getting her Master’s degree in educational leadership at USM. “I never thought it’d be right after I got my undergraduate degree, but it worked out and I couldn’t be happier.”
Neither could the Huskies. Pelletier is 8-0 with a 1.69 ERA and a team-high 56 strikeouts in 62 innings. She joins Brown (8-0, 1.19 ERA), and freshmen Lauren Merrill (4-0, 2.03) and Belle Snyder (2-0, 1.62) to provide Jamo with an exceptional pitching staff.
“That’s another piece to all this,” said Jamo. “Our hitters have been able to see four or five great pitchers consistently all season. And I think that’s helped translate into the offensive numbers. Each one features something different — some are power pitchers, others are drop/curve, a rise ball, a change-up — and I think that has really helped the offense, which I’m sure has been frustrated at times facing them.”
Tinsman, who was a three-time Varsity Maine All-State selection, is having what Jamo called “a career year.”
She is batting .438 with five home runs, 36 RBI and 26 runs scored. Her slugging percentage is .725. Her on-base percentage is .483. She has 58 total bases on 35 hits. Behind the plate, she has committed just one error.
Her surge at the plate has been pivotal in USM’s offensive prowess. And it’s not by accident.
“Before the season I kind of took a few moments and reflected and thought to myself, ‘You’ve been working at this sport your whole life and it all comes down to this year,’ ” said the 24-year-old Tinsman, who was a second-team all-conference pick in 2019.
“So I said to myself, ‘Leave leave it all on the field every game and just have fun.’ I feel like every other year I’ve been pressing too hard and this year changed my mindset. Who cares if make you make an error? Who cares if you strike out? You only have so many at-bats left in your career, so just make the most of it.”
Her more relaxed attitude has filtered among her teammates. “There’s always a vibe in our dugout that, no matter what the situation, we’re not going to lose,” said Pelletier.
“It’s just a calming confidence,” said Martin.
Jamo said the contributions of freshmen such as shortstop Madison Day and Lauren Merrill (both former Oxford Hills stars) cannot be overlooked. Day is playing flawlessly at shortstop (only one error) while hitting .384. Merrill is a solid No. 3 pitcher.
Day and Merrill said the fall season was pivotal for them, helping them adjust not just to softball but to college life. The leadership by the “super-seniors,” as they called the fifth-years, has been exceptional.
“They came back knowing what we needed to do,” said Merrill. “They set a good tone — this is what we’re going to do.”
But they never expected to be contributing so early in their career. Merrill said she learns every day from Pelletier and Brown. “I think I got lucky,” she said. “I’ve gained experience just by watching them.”
And Day? “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to start,” she said. “We have other great infielders here. I was just happy to play at all.”
Sophomore Lauren Leidemann-Smith, a Marshwood High grad and transfer from St. Joseph’s College, is hitting .403 while sophomore outfielder Hannah Shields of Buckfield is hitting .320 and hasn’t made an error. Sophomore first baseman Rona Scott is hitting .365.
Martin missed 10 games early in the season with a shoulder injury. Her time off taught her something about the team.
“There’s a bigger picture with this group,” said Martin, who is hitting .310. “Every single game different are people stepping up and that’s so good. This is a special group.”