Even before the St. Joseph’s College softball team held its first practice this spring, Coach Jamie Smyth was concerned. He had lost some pivotal players from the previous year. Then, during basketball season, his starting shortstop suffered a knee injury. He didn’t know how much, if anything, he would get from her.

Looking at his lineup, Smyth knew his freshmen would have to mature quickly.

They obviously did.

The Monks won their fourth consecutive Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship this spring and will open play in the NCAA Division III softball tournament on Friday. St. Joseph’s (33-4) will play Western Connecticut (31-10) in a regional tournament at Wellesley, Massachusetts. Host Wellesley (27-9) will play Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State in the other opening game. Times will be determined Tuesday.

“We’ve got great players,” said Smyth, in his 17th season as the Monks’ head coach. “We’ve got kids that don’t quit … That’s how you win championships multiple times, when you have players who are willing to lay it out there every day.

“That’s not the mentality of everyone playing softball. But this is all about our kids and their mental toughness and ability to perform in difficult situations.”

Still, even Smyth said that a team that has two freshman catchers (Carla Tripp and Jennifer Murphy), a freshman shortstop (Danica Gleason) and a freshman center fielder (Tripp, when not catching) is rolling the dice.

“We were all freshmen up the middle,” he said. “And those are typically key positions to ask young kids to play.”

But they’re all talented. Gleason, from South Portland, led the Monks with a .459 batting average while batting cleanup. Tripp, from Lovell and Fryeburg Academy, hit .346. Murphy, from Andover, Massachusetts, and Ursuline Academy, hit .345. Then there are other freshmen contributors: Molly Mack (Portland, McAuley) hit .300; pitcher Dani Egan (Waterboro, Massabesic) was 3-0 with a team-best 0.28 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 25 innings; Mariah Harrison (Buxton, Bonny Eagle) hit .286.

Theresa Hendrix, a senior outfielder from Scarborough and Cheverus, said they stopping acting and playing like freshmen a long time ago.

“This was the perfect class to come in,” said Hendrix, who batted .398 with a team-high four home runs and 31 RBI. “We had lost a few girls, but the energy and love for the game those girls have is unbelievable. The way they’ve grown since the beginning of the season … if you watched them now you’d think they were upperclassmen.”

Egan and Gleason said the Monks’ depth pushed them to become better.

“We’re a good, all-around team,” said Gleason, who earned Miss Maine Softball in her senior year at South Portland. “I think everyone is equal. And we’re all trying to reach the same goal.”

Said Egan: “We have a lot of fun together and I think that is what makes our team different. We all really just love the game and like to have a good time.”

The four seniors — Hendrix, Connie Grovo, Lindsay Moore and pitcher Rae-Marie Copan — have been instrumental not only on the field, but in bringing the team together.

The Monks didn’t even have a full team until their first game. Several players were also on the Monks’ women’s basketball team that made it to the NCAA tournament. They lost at Tufts on a Friday night and were on a plane to Florida two days later to play softball.

Gleason, one of the basketball players, struggled early in Florida, but Hendrix helped push her forward. “She helped me figure out how to get my confidence back,” Gleason said.

Smyth said the Monks received great performances all season. Moore, who suffered the knee injury during basketball season, came back to wear a brace and hit .362 as the designated hitter. Copan was the ace pitcher, going 16-2 with a 1.64 ERA. Grovo hit .308 and made only one error all season.

If anything, this was a team that’s thrived on its pitching and defense. The Monks have made only 32 errors in 37 games.

“It all starts with pitching and defense,” said Smyth. “We don’t have a pitcher who strikes out 10 a game. The ball is put in play a lot so we have to play good defense to win.”

Gleason, the GNAC Rookie of the Year, said there is another trait this team shares, something Smyth alluded to: “We know the competition is going to be higher, the games more intense (in the NCAAs). And I think, when there’s more on the line, that’s when we play our best.”

Smyth hopes that continues. “I think we have as good a shot as anyone,” he said.

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:[email protected]Twitter: MikeLowePPH