Smyrna softball set to defend state title

SMYRNA — The thrill of winning a state title doesn’t go away just because the calendar changes.

Every day they go to practice, Smyrna High’s softball players can see the sign on the back of their dugout commemorating the state crown they won last May.

“It gives me goosebumps every time I think about it,” said senior outfielder Abbie Mace.

“We think about it a lot,” she said. “We think about just how amazing last season was — and how amazing that it can continue to be throughout this season.”

Indeed, there’s no shortage of returning starters back from last year’s state championship squad. And that means there’s no reason to think the Eagles won’t be a strong contender again this spring.

Smyrna opens the season today with a 4:15 p.m. game at Polytech trying to join the 2013-14 Laurel squads as the only Henlopen Conference team to win back-to-back state crowns in softball.

Downstate schools have won six of the last seven state titles in the sport.

Of course, Smyrna coach Nicki Shirey has been reminding her players that last season is over. All the great things the Eagles accomplished last spring in their 21-1 campaign are in the past.

“They don’t feel any pressure this year,” said Shirey. “Even though the majority of the girls are back, it’s definitely a new energy. They definitely know not to hold onto the whole ‘defending (champion)’ thing or ‘repeat.’ They’re not focused on anything like that.”

“We’re just taking it day by day,” said senior outfielder Liv Smith. “We’re not looking at May 25, we’re looking at this Friday.”

Still, Smyrna does return a lot of veterans.

Smith and Mace are both back in the outfield along with the entire starting infield of Sara Miller (3B), Lexi Moore (SS), Kayla Wilson (2B) and Julia Thuer (1B), Wilson was a second-team All-Stater last year with Moore making honorable mention.

And while pitcher Jessica Anderson — who was the state Player of the Year — is now at Wesley College, sophomore Payton Dixon regularly came in as a late-game replacement as a freshman.

Shirey said Dixon has the confidence to take over starting-pitching duties.

“She has that natural lefty spin,” said Shirey. “Her pitches are working pretty well this year. She’s anxious to get the season started for sure.”

Considering the strength of downstate softball and the fact that 13 of Smyrna’s games are against Henlopen Conference teams, the Eagles know they’ll have to be ready to play every day. Ten of Smyrna’s 17 in-state opponents made the DIAA state tournament last season.

Of course, being the defending state champion also puts a bulls-eye on the Eagles’ backs. Smyrna starts the season with an 18-game winning streak.

“I wouldn’t say we are stressed,” said Miller. “I would say we’re taking it as a new start. It’s a new season, new players, new weaknesses, new strengths. I think we have an equal opportunity, just like every other year, with the team we have.”

“We just need to be in the game, 100 percent, at all times,” said Smith. “There’s no one we should take lightly.”

“Last season was, of course, amazing,” said Mace. “But it’s over. We have to stay focused on what’s in front of us and stay focused on what this year holds.”

Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or walter@newszap.com.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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