By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- While some outside Skyline's softball program were skeptical about the Hawks' chances of repeating as Northwestern District champions this season, head coach Frank Nelson was hardly concerned.
Sure, the loss of six seniors to graduation -- including 2012 district player of the year Sabrie Neeb -- from last season's team wasn't ideal, but Nelson was confident in the young group of players waiting for their shot this year.
Nelson, who served as Skyline's JV softball coach for two seasons before taking over the varsity program last year, was plenty familiar with the group of freshmen and sophomores that would comprise a bulk of Skyline's team this season, and he knew that many of them were ready to make an immediate impact for the Hawks.
"I was more confident because I had those kids who were coming up as JVs, and they beat everybody as JVs. So I knew what was coming up. The key, though, is getting everybody on the same page," Nelson, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Softball Coach of the Year, said. "My thing was, how long of a learning curve is it going to take before they relaxed?"
Skyline, like many other teams in the area, was hurt by the uncooperative weather that swept the region in early March, relegating the Hawks to indoor practices and prohibiting Skyline's younger players from gaining valuable varsity experience through the usual preseason scrimmages.
It didn't come as a shock that the Hawks fell flat out of the gate, getting blasted by Fauquier, 14-4, in a game riddled with sloppy fielding.
"At the beginning of the year, we had no outdoor practice at all. We had no scrimmages. We were probably the best gym floor team in the area. Then we got out that first game against Fauquier and it was like 'Oh my goodness,'" Nelson said. "That first game, my goodness gracious, it was like we had never seen a softball."
But Skyline quickly bounced back, beating Brentsville on the road two days later and winning three of their next four games.
The Hawks then lost their next two games (both times Skyline was without starting pitcher and 2013 Northwestern District Player of the Year Sarah Beamer), and then things really began clicking.
Skyline reeled off 15 victories in a row, claiming its second straight regular season district championship in the process.
The Hawks' winning streak was snapped in a disappointing 7-0 loss to James Wood in the district tournament championship on May 21, but Nelson said the loss may have actually been a positive experience for his team.
"I wish the loss would've come sooner than later. After a while you're expected to beat everybody, and that's hard right there," Nelson said. "I think when we lost that game it was a blessing in disguise, because we refocused that week."
Skyline responded a week later by beating visiting Briar Woods, 3-2, in the Region II quarterfinals, the first regional victory by the softball program in its seven-year history.
"You could see the relief when we beat Briar Woods. They come up expecting to beat you, and I think it did a lot for us and this program to beat a Loudoun County team," Nelson said.
Skyline's season ended with a loss to Powhatan in the regional semifinals, but the defeat couldn't hide the fact that the Hawks had put together their best softball season to date.
Nelson said his three seniors -- Beamer, Allison Funk and Emily Ritter -- played a critical leadership role for a team that included eight underclassmen and a completely retooled infield.
"I think the three girls we had this year were leaders. They got the best out of the kids," Nelson said. "Now it's about next year finding somebody who wants to be the leader and keep people focused and keep them on. The potential is there, the talent is there, it's just how we handle it."
Nelson will have the very tough task of replacing Beamer -- who served as the Hawks' starting pitcher for the last four seasons -- and his other two seniors, but Nelson is encouraged by the amount of returning experience he will have next season.
"At the end we put nine people on the two all-district teams. That's unheard of," Nelson said. "And hopefully they step it up next year and become first-teamers.
"Our team next year, I'll think we'll be in the hunt for it again, we'll be in the thick of it. I think we'll be good next year. I don't know how good, but we've got all the makings of a good season again."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org