“You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.” All his life, Mark Browne has lived by that motto, from his youthful days playing a variety of sports to his leadership as head coach of the Indian River softball program. And now, with a legacy behind him and a path paved for the next ambitious leader, he’s stepping away from the field, but never leaving what’s helped make him who he is today.
Browne served as the softball team’s assistant coach for four years under Steve Botchie before moving up as head coach for an additional eight. But his time controlling the diamond dates well prior to that.
After developing an early love for baseball, he took up coaching in the mid 1980’s. By 1993, as his daughter Shawn was growing up, he turned his focus on softball.
“I fell in love with the sport as soon as I got into it,” he said. “I fell in love with the speed of the game, the 60-foot base path, the strategy.”
He helped initiate curiosity about softball in girls throughout Sussex County, as youth leagues were unheard of south of Smyrna prior to 1993. Browne was instrumental in bringing softball to Georgetown, Millsboro and Dagsboro, three areas that have since become synonymous with the sport.
He began with a 14-and-under team, coaching athletes throughout the area, including Coastal Point’s very own Monica Fleming.
“I still remember rounding third base in one of the games, and coming into home and sliding in, head-first. He slid head-first, too, right beside me,” she recalled.
Making the transition from the student to the teacher was an eye-opening one for Browne.
“I realized how much I didn’t know when I was playing,” he said. “I’ve read the books, and I’ve gone to the clinics. I learned from some of the best. I watched John Wells take his girls [at Sussex Central] years ago when they captured states.
“After you coach for some years, you think you know it all. You’re just kidding yourself. You find new ways to do things. You’re always learning more,” he said.
As his understanding and appreciation for the sport matured, much like the girls he taught on the diamond over the years he progressed to the high-school level, and, before long, it was evident that Browne knew the game.
By 1998, the Lady Indians had defeated St. Mark’s for the state championship — the only Indian River team to take home a state championship title since the school’s start in 1968. Their skill was being perfected, from pitching sensations Cara Deldeo and Angela Robinson, to catcher Sarah Lyons and shortstop Christi McHale Arndt, and his own daughter, Shawn.
“I’ve lost track of the number of girls who have come through the high-school program and turn what they have learned into a college career,” he said, “but it’s getting up there. It’s well in the 30’s.”
Wilkinson went on to compete in Division II, while Deldeo rocketed pitches in for St. Joseph’s, Arndt went on to Bloomsburg, Shawn Browne attended Elon, and Lyons — followed years later by younger sister Emily — enrolled at Holy Family College.
“We had a great year then,” said Browne, “but it’s important to acknowledge that every year, the program sees incredible girls. We don’t just live in one year. We strive to get states each year, but there is talent here every season.”
But it wasn’t all about perfecting athletes to their highest performing level. In 2006, 15 girls on the team not only claimed the conference, but proved themselves outstanding students in the classroom, earning top honors in scholastic as well as athletics.
Deldeo and 2008 senior second-baseman Abigail Buchler were both valedictorians for their graduating classes. Sophomore Lizzy Handy shared a poem with the team at this year’s banquet, exemplifying the team’s diverse talent away from the field.
“I’ve seen a remarkable group of girls who have their priorities straight,” said Browne. “These kids are driven and will contribute the most later in society. That’s what makes the experience really rewarding.”
His presence has had a lasting impact in the lives of the athletes who knew him best.
Christi Arndt took on leadership roles on the diamond at shortstop but attributes her character from her coach’s vision.
“Browne was able to really relate to us and set realistic goals,” she said. “One thing I took from Browne was a saying of his, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’ That was primarily the way he coached and mentored. As long as you put in hard work, you could attain everything, and that continues in my life, off field. He pushed us to not be pushed back and to never be satisfied until you reach that goal. Our success was really a testament to our team and to the way Mark coached us. It was a really great time.”
He’s managed to surround himself with talented student athletes who have, more importantly, become friends. But it’s not just the players who have made the time worth-while.
“I couldn’t have done what I did without the help of Andy Lyons and Eldred Cress,” admitted Browne. “[Lyons] has an optimistic, positive role inspiring the kids, and [Cress] has been a motivational factor in my life, as well as for the girls. For every good thing I’ve done, he’s done double. Guy Warrington has helped me out a lot, too. He has a great work ethic and always gave up time for the girls. These guys are really all about the kids, and it’s great to see that.”
Browne has made sure that his presence will still be felt long after he’s gone, as he helped to establish today’s fields, batting cages and dugouts at the high school.
“Those weren’t always there,” he noted. “The fields at the old high school were in poor condition. One thing I wanted to make sure I did was make a difference in someone’s life and give back to the community. [Lyons, Cress] and myself have put a great deal of time and money raised outside of school into the facilities we have now.
“It feels good to be leaving, knowing that we have these fields and batting cages in good condition for upcoming athletes. The next coach who steps in will be able to really concentrate on the team,” he said.
While the record Browne leaves behind at Indian River is an impressive one, full of unmatched memories, it’s the personal connections with his athletes that mean the most to him.
“The most rewarding part of what I’ve accomplished is when the girls come back and tell you how much they appreciate what you did for them,” he said. “That’s what coaching a team is all about — knowing that to someone, you made an impact on their life. Sure, we all want to win, and we had a really great run. But you don’t want to get hung up on the numbers. I’ve had a wonderful experience, and it’s just time for me to get back to my family.”