Mar. 23—PARIS — The last time Kiara McLeod toed the rubber for the Oxford Hills softball team, she was a sophomore backup pitcher working behind ace Lauren Merrill.
Fast forward two years and one pandemic later, Merrill is gone and graduated, and McLeod finds herself as the Vikings' presumed No. 1 pitcher as throwing practices for pitchers and catchers started Monday.
"(Lauren) has the most confidence out of anybody that I know. And she was really a leader on the team," McLeod said before throwing the ball in the gym for the first time this season. "She was loud, she was confident in everything that she did. So I really looked up to that and I hope to adapt that this year."
The Vikings reached the Class A North title game in 2019. McLeod, as a sophomore, pitched some innings, usually in relief of Merrill late in games, but now she is likely to get the ball first from longtime coach Cindy Goddard.
"McLeod, she was only a sophomore and now she's going to be the starting pitcher (as a senior). Like that's a big jump," Goddard said. "I mean, last year she would have got some time on the mound, she would have been comfortable, and now she's taking a big step. So it'll be fun. It'll be challenging to see."
"I'm looking forward to making a name for myself," McLeod said. "I mean, it would be hard to fill (Lauren's) shoes, but I think me and our potential new catcher are going to have good chemistry, and I'll just do my own thing and not let anybody get in my head."
McLeod said she isn't sure who will be her normal battery mate this season, but she was working with Maih Gallan on Monday.
Goddard said Monday's group was the biggest selection of throwers she's had in a long time. And one catcher was missing, stuck in quarantine that was announced Sunday night and shook the team on the eve of its long-awaited first practice in nearly two years.
"I don't want to take anything for granted because just yesterday our school had so many people come in close contact, that anything could change at any moment," junior Bella DeVivo, the only other varsity returner besides McLeod, said. "So it really is exciting that we're here right now, and hopefully for a while this season."
"Last night at 8:30 we got (notified) that (the school is) remote this whole week. So here we are, finally going into spring season, things have kind of gone really good — boom, you get the, 'Oh, we're home,'" Goddard said. "And then that asks the question: Do we have practice or not have practice? And so it's good (to be practicing today).
"It's even interesting when you're doing a schedule for practice because half the kids are (at school) half the time, so you can't just have practice at 2 o'clock because half the kids aren't here. So when you look at that, it's like we have Pod A, Pod B, and how to make it.
"So it's exciting, like oh, my God, gorgeous weather — I mean, how can you not ask for better weather? — it feels like spring season, so just hearing the ball, just glad to be back. I don't even care — you know, just like field hockey (this past fall) — I don't really care what this season is, it's about being together, and having fun, and doing the things that you like to do. Getting some part of your life normal, whatever it may be."
DeVivo, who was a role player as a freshman two years ago, was one of a handful of players decked out in catcher's gear Monday. Like McLeod, she's been thrust into an unfamiliar leadership role.
"It is exciting, and it's weird because the last time I played with this team I was a freshman, and it's weird to adapt to a new thing this year, but I'm excited to work because I've played with these senior girls for so long, so I'm really excited," DeVivo said.
McLeod and DeVivo weren't concerned about being stuck inside the gym on the nicest day of the year so far. DeVivo said "it really feels good to just play anywhere at this point."
Goddard said she likes to hold pitchers and catchers practice in the gym because drills can be concentrated and players kept in better focus. She's hoping to get outside by next Monday, when the full squad can take part in tryouts.
DeVivo is looking forward to the possibility of playing in a scrimmage as early as next Saturday.
Until then, McLeod said all the players — her and the other seniors, especially — are taking every day, every practice or game, for what it is, and not taking it for granted.
"I think it's kind of amazing how just last year we couldn't play, and that was really upsetting for everybody," she said, "but the fact that we're here and we can play, even if we have to wear masks and social distance, I just think we're grateful."
Goddard, also the school's field hockey coach, learned this past fall that every day needs to be viewed as a fun day. Sunday night's news about quarantines and remote learning was a reminder of that. Not to mention a school year all but devoid of the usual drop-ins from players into Goddard's office at the school that she cherishes (she admitted she's not one for FaceTime or Facebook). She estimates she had only seen McLeod four times all school year.
Monday, they were face to face, and finally getting to work on what both hope will be a season that meets the Vikings' high standards.