ST. GEORGE, Utah — Eric Neel spent most of Friday morning reflecting on his first season as head coach of the Darton State softball team.
And there was one thing he kept coming back to in the wake of Thursday night’s season-ending loss to Odessa College in the NJCAA national tournament.
“The toughness of these kids,” he said. “To go through what they did and to achieve what they achieved is spectacular. That’s what I liked about this season. I liked seeing them accomplish so much.”
Neel, who had only coached high school softball in Mississippi before accepting the Darton job in January, became the third Lady Cavs coach in six months following the resignations of David Dews and Larry Willis in 2013 — and he said his players took the adversity in stride and found a way to overcome.
“They go through all of those coaching changes, and then they have a coach come in that has absolutely no experience at this level,” he said. “For those girls to bond together and do what they did shows how talented they are and how great teammates they are.”
The Lady Cavs rose from the ashes of the coaching carousel to put together one of the program’s best seasons. They ended the year No. 13 in the national rankings and took a 19-game winning streak into the national tournament, but the magical ride ended late Thursday with an 8-0, five-inning loss to Odessa.
Darton, which survived an elimination game against Butler (Kan.) Community Collge earlier on Thursday, was shut out for the first time all season by Odessa’s Janessa Flynn, a dropball pitcher who allowed just five hits and struck out seven.
“We just ran into a pitcher that was tough for us to handle,” explained Neel, whose Lady Cavs finished the season 46-12 after going 1-2 in the national tournament. “She was a dropball, change-up pitcher against a power-hitting team, and she happened to be on. They had the right medicine for what we had. We just couldn’t get anything rolling.”
No Lady Cavs got multiple hits in the game, and Katelynn Johnson’s fourth-inning double was the only extra-base hit. Darton ace Sommar Wright gave up seven hits and six runs in the first 2 1/3 innings before being relieved by Tiffany Bishop, who allowed three hits and two runs the rest of the game.
“When you get down to elimination time and get down early, it’s tough for kids to fight through it,” Neel said about the early-inning deficit the Lady Cavs faced.
Despite the loss, it was a season full of positives for the Lady Cavs, who set program records with 163 stolen bases and 65 home runs and went undefeated at home.
Freshman catcher Emily Church finished the season tied for seventh in the nation with 19 home runs and tied for 15th with 74 RBIs. Leadoff hitter Sierra Newman stole 47 bases, which ranked eighth in the nation. As a team, the Lady Cavs ranked sixth in walks, seventh in stolen bases and 11th in home runs.
Eight of the nine starters had batting averages over .300, and seven had on-base percentages over .400. Freshman pitchers Wright and Bishop logged a combined 220.4 innings pitched and both had ERAs under 3.00.
The best news about all of those statistics? Most of those stars are returning next year for Neel, who is bring back freshmen starters Church, Johnson, Wright, Bishop, Jordan Allen, Kendall Holland and Nicole McInerney.
“We think that with the (incoming freshmen) we are bringing in next season, we feel like from a talent standpoint we will be as good if not better,” Neel said about next season. “Hopefully the six who played every day for us can lean on the experience of this year and be better players next year.”
Neel, the Region XVII Coach of the Year, said he learned “a whole bunch” during his first season as a collegiate coach.
“I probably could write a book,” he said. “I look back now and see decisions I could have made differently that could have affected the outcome of things. I saw some things that worked that I will stick with. You learn a lot in 58 games.”