ALBANY — Eric Neel understands the doubts.
The whispers of skepticism don’t surprise Darton’s first-year softball coach, who took over the program less than a month before the season opener and brings zero college coaching experience to his new position.
But it’s in that disbelief where Neel thinks his Lady Cavs can thrive this season.
“This is a sneaky good team. I think people are going to go ‘wow’ in the next month,” said Neel, whose Lady Cavs begin the season today at Andrew College.
“Look at the situation. Here is a high school guy coming in. What does he know about college coaching? The kids have been through a heck of a transition time. It has all the billings for being negative. But I think from the get-go we have impressed it as a positive.”
It was a rocky year before Neel came over from Hattiesburg, Miss., and brought stability to a program that desperately needed it. Back in March of last year, Darton’s coaching staff of David Dews and his father, Gene, got into a heated argument during a game with Chipola College that resulted in a shoving match that forced campus police to intervene.
Gene Dews stepped down after the altercation, and David accepted a job at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) College in July. Larry Willis took over the team in an interim role after Dews’ exit, but then Willis resigned from his post in November. For the six weeks preceding Neel’s hire, former Darton baseball coach Glenn Eames ran the Darton softball program — so the security of a new leader is exactly what Darton’s players are looking for.
And they think they’ve found it in Neel.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first because we changed the way we did everything from last fall to this spring,” Darton pitcher Jostlyn Higgerson said. “But I like the direction everything is heading right now. Everybody seems to be progressing, and we are confident in each other.”
The Lady Cavs, who were Region XVII champs in 2006, ’09 and ’11, finished 37-15 last season and came in third in the region tournament.
They were led last year by pitchers Savannah Carlisle and Higgerson, who had ERAs of 0.97 and 1.56, respectively. Both pitchers are back at Darton for their sophomore seasons, but Neel believes it will ultimately be hitting that carries the Lady Cavs this season.
“That’s probably going to be our trademark forever,” said Neel, who became a legendary preps coach in Mississippi and guided teams to five state championships in the last seven years. “I feel like that’s the kind of coach I am. We are going to be an offensive team, and we are going to be aggressive at the plate and on the bases.”
Darton’s top returning hitters will be infielder Bree Wells (.349, 34 RBIs), outfielder Sierra Newman (.303, 10 RBIs) and infielder Melissa Dearth (.357, 45 RBIs, 11 HRs), while freshman catcher Emily Church will also play a key role offensively.
Darton’s roster is stocked with talent, and Higgerson believes Neel is the perfect coach to turn that talent into victories.
“Probably the intensity level of practices is the biggest change with (Neel),” Higgerson said. “The way everything is being handled is a lot more professional.”
Carlisle said last year’s team lacked the effort that Neel has installed this season.
“The practices this year are much different,” she said. “Last year we would just do a round of batting practice, but this year we have a lot more going on at the same time. When we get out at 5:30 from practice, I was telling somebody the other day that it feels like 7 because we do so much stuff.”
In less than a month, Neel has his team buying in to what he calls a “fighter’s mentality.”
“The first night we talked about what it’s like to be a teammate and that nobody out here is bigger than this program,” he said. “That’s part of the philosophy I have taken on in the past to overachieve, and we have taken on that idea that we are overachievers and against the wall. They have developed that fighter’s mentality, and I think it’s brought them closer together.”