Lizard-less Indians hold high hopes for wide-open South

Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: From left to right, senior softball players Eliza Bomhardt, Callie McDowell, Ky’lesha Neal and Casey Hitchens will look to lead the Indians back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: From left to right, senior softball players Eliza Bomhardt, Callie McDowell, Ky’lesha Neal and Casey Hitchens will look to lead the Indians back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.Last season, the Indian River High School softball team had no seniors. This season, they’ve got four of them — each bringing three years of playoff experience, along with their three varsity letters.

Needless to say, expectations for 2016 are high.

“We’ve been to the playoffs every year now,” said senior OF Callie McDowell. “Every year, we’re hoping to make it further than the year before, and last year we fell a little short.”

“We want to go farther than we have before,” added senior OF Ky’Lesha Neal.

Returning for their third season at the helm are head coach Erika Brittingham and assistant coaches Abi Buchler and Catherine Bennett.

“They’ve gotten to know us now for three years, and they know what to expect,” Brittingham said of her squad. “Our expectations are high, and they always will be. But I think that they’re starting to understand that the expectations are very achievable for them.”

Out on the field, the Indians will also return Second Team All-Conference UT Sammi Mumford for her junior campaign and Honorable Mention All-Conference OF Julia Bomhardt for her sophomore season. Eliza Bomhardt — a Second Team All-Conference catcher in 2015 and DI commit to the University of Hartford — will have to sit out her senior season due to injury. However, that doesn’t mean she won’t be part of the team.

“It’s tough, but I’m still out here, so that helps a lot,” Eliza Bomhardt said. “I get to help out and observe. I’m gonna learn a lot. I’m gonna get to sit with Erika in the dugout and help call pitches.”

“Obviously, we’re gonna miss her behind the plate and we’re gonna miss her hitting,” added Brittingham. “The catchers are looking up to her for guidance. She’s very vocal. I think still having her around is gonna help the younger girls a lot.”

While sophomore catcher Braydee Whitman and freshman catcher Grace Snyder will look to fill the void behind the plate, and junior Madi McGee will make the move from first to second base, Brittingham said that, unlike last season, there shouldn’t be too much position-shuffling this season.

“I think we figured it out [last year], where the girls would best help our team,” she explained. “I think that they’re full-on accepting a role, regardless of what that role is — whether you’re just playing defense, whether you’re just hitting or whether you’re just running for us. I think that’s gonna make the team better.”

The squad will also benefit from a talented and deep freshman class — many of whom played on the Lower Sussex Little League state-championship squad last summer and will split time between the varsity and newly implemented junior varsity squad coached by Angie Corrado.

“They’re showing a lot of growth. She’s hands-on, helping them every day,” said Brittingham. “They want it. They want be here, they love the game, and I think they’re really excited to play their first game.”

Two of those players splitting time this season will be left-handed freshman pitchers Nicole Patille and Abi O’Shields, who will add to the bullpen of senior Casey Hitchens and sophomore Marley Evans — both righties.

“A team can never have enough pitchers and never have enough catchers,” said Brittingham. “That’s gonna add a whole different dynamic to our pitching staff.”

“Two lefties coming up, it’s gonna be really fierce pitching this year,” added Hitchens.

But they aren’t the only team in the league with a whole new look to their pitching staff, with dominant pitchers including Laurel’s Regan Green, Woodbridge’s Hailey Andrews and Polytech’s Shaina Reed, who was instrumental in knocking the Indians out of the playoffs last season.

Between the wide-open Henlopen South division, the added numbers and the benefit of having a senior class, Brittingham and her squad said, the upcoming season already has a different feel.

“The communication is much better, the morale on the team is much better. They just want it,” she said. “No one last year it was their last season — and that’s hard when you don’t have girls fighting, knowing it’s their last. I think, this year, that’s making it a lot different.”

“We’ve all just played with each other so long now .We know that it’s our last time playing together for us seniors,” added McDowell. “I think we all know what we’re going for this season.”

The Indians will start going for it when the regular season gets under way on Tuesday, March 22, vs. Polytech at 4:15 p.m.