What does it take to build a 13-3 record and earn the No. 3 seed in the Western Class A softball playoffs just one year after finishing 15th?
In the case of Cheverus High, it started with some solid cornerstones already in place.
“Definitely our coaches,” said senior pitcher Brittany Bell, noting that a strong staff of Coach Maureen Curran and assistants Tige Curran and Lesley Warn was strengthened by the additions of Kevin Haley and catching instructor Cynthia Wescott. “We just built on that.”
Then there’s Bell, a three-year varsity player who honed her game in summer ASA competition.
“It’s mostly Brittany. She is the rock of the team,” senior first baseman Libby DesRuisseaux said. “If Brittany doesn’t strike out a batter, I’m almost surprised, and she’s been an awesome hitter.”
Bell was good as a junior for a team that went 6-10, hitting .392 with a 3.89 ERA.
This year she has been outstanding. Her .469 batting average and .581 on-base percentage lead the team. She has pitched all 1122/3 innings, striking out 172 while walking only 11, with an ERA of 1.86.
“She has great control, good movement on the ball; she’s had a really great season on the mound,” Curran said.
“What really benefits Brittany that most people don’t recognize is her intelligence. Libby is the valedictorian of the class and Brittany is number nine in the class. She and Lesley Warn and Cynthia Wescott have had some great dialogue around pitch selection and pitch sequences.”
Bell and the rest of her teammates will play their first-ever playoff softball game Thursday, hosting the winner of Tuesday’s preliminary round game between No. 6 Falmouth (10-6) and No. 11 Marshwood (5-11).
In addition to Bell, Curran considered DesRuisseaux and outfielders Josie Bradshaw and Katie Randall as building blocks going into the season. DesRuisseaux is hitting .403 with eight doubles and has made only one error, and Bradshaw has a team-high 12 RBI.
“But other than that we had a lot of question marks, and that was readily apparent in the preseason scrimmages and even the first couple weeks,” Curran said.
Among the question were who would be Bell’s catcher and who would play shortstop.
The answers came in the form of juniors Margaret Rigney and Olivia Mull, childhood friends who last played softball when they were sixth graders at Lyman Moore Middle School.
Curran can laugh now when she recalls teaching her new players that, yes, they could get a lead off the base as soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand as opposed to when it crossed home plate.
“With two kids who haven’t played since sixth grade, the last time they played, that was the rule,” Curran said. “We had a lot of coaching and a lot of teaching to do at the start of the season. They have certainly risen to the occasion and have been so much fun to coach.”
Mull has handled short. Rigney immediately asked to catch Bell.
“I wanted the challenge,” she said.
What neither Curran nor Bell knew was Rigney’s catching background. Her brother, Ben Ives, was a standout pitcher at Deering and the 2012 Little East Conference Pitcher of the Year for the University of Southern Maine.
“I grew up catching for him, just in the yard, and he kind of taught me everything,” Rigney said.
Considering the age difference (Ives is now 26), the story at first raises doubts.
“Then I saw her catching Brittany’s drop pitches that are bouncing in front of her with a smile on her face, and I believed it,” Curran said with a laugh.
Cheverus also benefited from the schedule maker. By the time the Stags met the top teams in the SMAA, they were 7-0. The varsity newbies had gained confidence and critical at-bats.
A 2-1 loss to Biddeford snapped the winning streak.
Then came a defining 5-4 win at South Portland. Bell gave up a two-run homer to Laurine German in the seventh that tied the game. But Cheverus shook off that blow, and Bell drove home the winning run in the eighth.
“The South Portland game gave us the confidence that we can do this,” Bell said. “We can compete with them.”
Cheverus further proved its mettle with wins against Bonny Eagle and Noble (in 10 innings). A 4-0 loss to unbeaten Scarborough was a 1-0 game entering the seventh. The only time the Stags were overmatched was when Thornton Academy banged out 15 hits in a 9-2 win.
Hitting has been a key part of the turnaround.
All eight players with at least 50 plate appearances are hitting .250 or better, including third baseman Casey Simpson at .321 from the leadoff spot. Four players – Bradshaw, Bell, DesRuisseaux and Randall – have at least 10 RBI. Rigney, Mull and second baseman Sophia Giancotti each have driven in eight runs.
“Our hitting has really improved,” Rigney said. “The first time I hit it was like, ‘Wow, that’s fast.’ Now, everyone contributes. Our whole lineup is strong.”
Of course a great regular season does not guarantee playoff success.
“I think everyone still underestimates us and thinks we’re the team that got lucky,” Rigney said, “but we have the team chemistry to do great things.”