On his first day of practice after taking over the Indian River High School baseball team, first-year head coach D.J. Long told his squad of his playing days at long-time district rival Sussex Central.
Understandably, he was booed.
But while the gesture was made in jest, it also served as the ice-breaking introduction for the former-Golden Knight-turned-Indian, as he swaps out the blue in his blue-and-gold for green, boos for cheers, and aims to get the Indians back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“It is different. I did have to update my wardrobe — it was all blue and gold,” said Long with a laugh. “Now, the Central game is definitely going to be a game I look forward to. I’m excited for that.”
Helping lead the Golden Knights to a state championship appearance in 2009, Long went on to start every game of his NCAA career at the University of Delaware at second base. He finished that career as the school’s all-time leader in doubles and as their fourth-leading hitter.
Joining him on a completely revamped coaching staff will be former Central teammate Trevor Wilkins, who will be working primarily with the bullpen and who finished 10-0 for Knights during their 2009 state finals run, as well as former UD teammate Tyler Dean, who will be working primarily with the outfield and on base running.
Graduating from Indian River in 2012, Dean balances out the otherwise Central-leaning coaching unit and, notably, played both wide receiver and cornerback on the Indians’ 2011 state-championship football team.
If the juxtaposed school ties weren’t enough, furthering the plot, Long still coaches football at Central, while his father, Dave Long, was a former All-State quarterback for the Indians.
Past allegiances will be set aside this spring, as Long leads a youth-infused coaching staff putting their focus on leading a youth-infused roster at IR.
“I like the young atmosphere and the energy that coaches bring to the team,” said RF Zion Howard. “They’re out there working with us, really trying to help us get to the next level.”
“They just bring a whole new atmosphere,” added SS/P Mark Smith. “I think it’s really gonna help us out this year.”
An All-Conference selection in 2016, Howard will get the start in right field this season as one of the team’s three seniors, along with All-Conference first-baseman Zane Richard and 3B/P Ulises Barrientos Zamora.
Smith headlines the junior class after getting the start as a freshman in 2015, along with All-Conference pitcher Miles Clark, who will see time at second base when not on the mound. Junior Cole Hitch also returns behind the plate after sharing time with 2016 grad Joey Anderson, who made the move to designated hitter early last season.
Sophomore returners include Grant Argo at third-base, J.J. Killen at both pitcher and shortstop, and Jacob Anderson holding down centerfield after getting the start last year as a freshman.
After making a name for himself for the Indians on both the football field and basketball court, freshman phenom K.J. Custis looks like the frontrunner in left field after tripling in the team’s first scrimmage on March 8.
“I like the competition that the freshmen are bringing. It seems like they have the competitive drive and they’re really gonna push each other in the next four years to get better,” said Howard of newcomers such as Custis. “They’re huge portions of the team this year, and they all bring something special.”
Clark, Killen and Smith will be the primary rotation on the mound after the team graduated former ace Jake Hudson, but Long said that they’re still looking for a go-to reliever to finish games.
Despite finishing 4-14 last season, hopes remain high for this season, as the Henlopen South remains wide open and the bar for IR baseball gets raised.
Heading into his third year as a starter, Smith is preparing for not only a breakout year for himself but one for the Indians, after some close calls in 2016.
“I think, this year, we can definitely win the south. Last year, there were a lot of close games,” said Smith. “We’ve always had the potential, but I think this year is going to be a little bit different. There’s a new atmosphere, and a lot of the younger guys are showing some more confidence.”
“I’ve just been preaching that I want to win the South and I want to win double-digit games,” added Long. “It is a blessing that a lot of these guys are young. We’ve got players here. We just have to work, and things will happen the way we want them to happen.”
The Indians were scheduled for a scrimmage against Cambridge-South Dorchester on Wednesday, March 15, (after Coastal Point press time), to round out the pre-season. The regular season is set to get under way with a home game against Smyrna on Wednesday, March 22, at 4:15 p.m.
As for Long and Wilkins’ Golden Knights’ reunion, rivalry fans’ calendars are marked for Tuesday, May 2, at 4:15 p.m., when the Indians head to Sussex Central.