Janelle Bouchard’s head came slowly into view as she rode the escalator up to the Portland International Jetport’s second level. Her smile grew wider as she saw what awaited.

“I had no idea,” she said after hugging her mom, Debbie, amid a dozen friends and family members of the University of Maine softball team who had gathered Wednesday afternoon for one final good-luck goodbye.

Bouchard, a catcher from Kennebunk, is the lone senior on a Black Bears squad that swept through the America East tournament last weekend in upstate New York. That title earned them an automatic berth in the 64-team NCAA Division I Women’s Softball Championship, which begins Friday at 16 regional sites around the country.

This is only Maine’s third NCAA tournament berth in softball. The most recent came in 2004.

No Maine team in any sport has reached this level since the 2013 football team won a Colonial Athletic Association title and hosted an NCAA playoff game. The football team also was the last Black Bears squad to win a national tournament game, against Appalachian State in North Carolina in 2011.

Erin Bogdanovich, a junior from South Portland and one of five Maine natives on the roster, is the team’s star pitcher. She’ll be throwing to Bouchard when the unseeded Black Bears face host University of Georgia, seeded 16th, in the Athens Regional at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

“It’s so exciting,” Bogdanovich said. “It feels like such an honor to have made it this far.”

TEAM HAS BECOME A SOURCE OF PRIDE

Oklahoma State and Northwestern are the other teams in their double-elimination bracket. One of the four will advance to the following weekend’s Super Regional, held at eight campus sites in a best-of-three format against one other team.

Wednesday’s send-off at the jetport was the second of the afternoon for the Black Bears, who had been saluted by supporters in the university’s athletic department when the team bus pulled out of an Orono campus largely devoid of students. Classes ended two weeks ago. Commencement came last Saturday.

“It’s still been good,” said first-year head coach Mike Coutts, who played third base on the UMaine baseball team that advanced to the 1981 College World Series. “A lot of athletes are left (on campus) because they’re still in training, so they’ve been very supportive.” The field hockey team decorated the softball locker room Tuesday. Athletes from other sports who remained on campus for the three-week May term offered congratulations.

At the end of an academic year in which the university’s football, men’s ice hockey and men’s basketball teams went a combined 18-54-6, the softball team, which has gone 28-19 so far, is a source of pride and inspiration.

“Other people say, ‘Jeez, they did it. Why can’t we do it?’ ” Coutts said. “So you hope it builds up the whole athletic department and gets people excited about what they’re doing.”

Excitement about the flagship university’s softball team is rippling throughout the state. At a team dinner Wednesday evening, Scarborough High junior Lilly Volk of the undefeated Red Storm spoke with pride of Maine showing southern schools that competitive softball is possible in the land of ice and snow.

“We have about three months out of the year to get out on a nice field with nice weather,” Volk said. “So to get to that level shows a lot about the hard work of their team, that they can train indoors and come out and play so well.”

Volk, who served as bat girl for a youth travel team coached by her father that included Bouchard, has made a verbal commitment to play at Maine. She can’t watch UMaine play on Friday because she will be pitching against Thornton Academy at the same time as the Black Bears take on Georgia.

“As soon as the game is over,” she said, “I’ll turn on my phone and check up on how they did.”

‘TRYING TO … PUT MAINE ON THE MAP’

Cable subscribers who have ESPN can view the Maine-Georgia broadcast via online-streaming on ESPN3, and an official “Watch Party” is scheduled for Seasons Grille and Sports Lounge in Bangor, where the game will be shown on big-screen TVs.

“Typically we see a lot of alumni, a lot of fans and a lot of friends,” said Jason Hoyt of Black Bear Sports Properties, which partners with the restaurant on at least half a dozen Watch Parties per year, most often for away football and hockey games. “Quite honestly, I thought we were done for the year. But we’ll do as many Watch Parties as Maine softball continues to win.”

The families of freshmen Ashley Tinsman of Cape Elizabeth and Laurine German of South Portland brought homemade signs to the jetport. One read “Good Luck.” The other read “Only One” – a reminder not to worry about anything but the next pitch.

“I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better season this year,” said Bouchard, who was named American East Player of the Year. “I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity to represent the state of Maine.”

There will be crowds in Georgia, she knows, much larger than the 100 or so who show up in Orono, where admission is free.

“I think we have the same mentality as we did at the (conference) tournament, just a calm confidence,” she said. “We’re trying to go and have a good showing and put Maine on the map.”


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