ELLSWORTH — Jake Hackett has spent hours contemplating how a 2020 high school softball season might have unfolded.
This time a year ago, Hackett, the head coach of the Ellsworth softball team, was still holding out hope that the spring season, which had yet to be officially canceled, could still take place. Even when those hopes were dashed, Hackett still wanted a general idea of what might have been and what that meant for the program’s future.
“It was difficult, but mentally, I feel like I took that step,” Hackett said. “I went through that season, played it out in my head and tried to figure out, in theory, what would have happened with what players I had and how I thought they would have developed.”
That exercise, while productive, was still no substitute for the season that was lost a year ago. Yet even if Hackett and his players have spent nearly 21 months away from varsity softball as the first week of practices goes on, the Eagles feel up to speed mentally and physically as they prepare for the campaign to come.
As is the case with many teams across the state, Ellsworth has a roster this year looks vastly different than it did when the team last took the field in June 2019. Two classes of seniors have departed, and the freshman and sophomore classes enter with no varsity or junior varsity experience under their belts.
Nevertheless, the Eagles return two major producers at the plate in seniors Sara Shea and Kayla Duhaime. Shea was an All-Penobscot Valley Conference first-team selection in 2019 as she led the team in batting average (.481) and stolen bases (13), and Duhaime was an All-PVC second-teamer with a .354 average and team bests in RBIs (18), runs scored (27) and home runs (two).
Despite no varsity play last season, Shea kept her skills sharp through summer club ball and months of training. With a healthy crop of new freshmen and sophomores arriving this year, the standout third baseman thinks the Eagles have the right mix of players in 2021.
“I’m so excited for what’s going to happen this year,” Shea said. “I’ve played with some of the sophomores and freshmen before, and they’re good players. I’ve missed playing with them, so it’s going to be fun to do that again.”
Four of those incoming players, freshmen Paige Johnson and Aaliyah Manning and sophomores Alex Bivins and Hannah Wagstaff, hope to pitch for Ellsworth this season. With Tyler Hellum (4-1 with a 1.30 ERA, 50 strikeouts and eight walks in 2019) back as the Eagles’ staff ace, Hackett will have a wealth of options in the circle.
“All of those girls have pitched before and are concentrating on pitching this year,” Hackett said. “That’s going to give us a good five or six solid pitchers for our [varsity and JV] programs, which is really, really nice.”
Hannah Wagstaff is the sister of 2019 Ellsworth graduate Conner Wagstaff, a star pitcher who helped lead the Ellsworth baseball team to its first state title in 31 years as a senior. Hackett has already noticed plenty of similarities between the two siblings, notably the speed and command both can display on the rubber.
“The thing about Hannah is that she has that great softball IQ,” Hackett said. “Conner had that great fastball, and Hannah can bring it pretty good, too, but what impresses me most about her is her ability to work the zone with the speed that she has. It’s been great coaching her already.”
Although Ellsworth can look forward to a full 16-game regular season slate plus postseason play this year, game atmospheres won’t be quite what they were when the team last played. Provisions prohibiting chanting will mean quieter dugouts, and umpires calling balls and strikes from behind the circle will give infields somewhat of a different feel as well.
There will, though, be one aspect of the sporting experience players and coaches have been craving: the return of fans. With schools permitted to host outdoor events at 75 percent capacity rather than being forced to impose hard caps of 100 people or outright bans on spectators, the diamond experience this year is set to feel a bit more whole.
“I think it’s something that will bring people out because it’s a chance to do something together after all this time,” Duhaime said. “I’m going to try and get as many people as I can [to come to the games] because why not?”
Ellsworth claimed the No. 10 seed in Class B North in 2019 before falling to No. 7 Gardiner in the Northern Maine preliminary round to finish the year 10-7. The playoff berth marked Ellsworth’s fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
Ellsworth will begin its preseason slate against Bangor at 4 p.m. April 13. The Eagles will then play preseason games against Bucksport (home; 4:30 p.m. April 15), Hampden Academy (away; 4 p.m. April 16) and Presque Isle (home; doubleheader beginning at noon April 19) before opening the regular season at home against Old Town at 3 p.m. April 23.
That game against Old Town will mark the team’s first countable contest in 689 days. Yet with three weeks of practices and preseason games before that date and a group of players who participated in summer ball last year and many of their coach’s past summer camps, Hackett is confident his unit will be ready when opening day arrives.
“With the energy and camaraderie we have and lots of girls getting to play travel last year, I feel like we didn’t 100 percent lose everything last year,” Hackett said. “We’re all ready to get outside and show what we can do.”