Looking ready to soar once again, pandemic grounds Golden Eagles

Naples High senior Ashlee Lykins, center, and freshman Gabby Rascher, right, look up to coach Walter Rascher during a Golden Eagles game this season. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Editor’s Note: The Collier County School District announced on Saturday, April 18, that online classes would continue through the rest of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, a decision on the spring sports season has yet to be made.

BY ANDREW SODERGREN
SPECIAL TO CSI

What started out as a renaissance season for the Naples High School softball team under new coach Walter Rascher has become a frustrating game of wait and see for the Golden Eagles.

The Golden Eagles remain hopeful but yet somewhat resigned to their fate that an 8-2 win over Gulf Coast on March 5 might have been their last game of the season. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Collier County schools have been closed since March 16. Meanwhile, the Florida High School Athletic Association has delayed making a final decision on the fate of spring sports — suggesting they could run through June 30 if necessary, leaving a glimmer of hope for seniors who don’t want to see their high school careers end this way.

“It would be so awesome to finish the season,” senior shortstop Ashlee Lykins said. “This is the best our team has been in a long time and to not be able to finish or to have a Senior Night, it’s really upsetting.”

Naples was off to a 7-0 start under Rascher and a fresh group of faces — the Golden Eagles’ best opening since the 2014 team began the year 8-0 in legendary coach Robert Iamurri’s 29th and final season. Iamurri, the all-time FHSAA leader in wins (817) and state championships (13 total — 12 at Naples and one at Lely), is now the head softball coach at Florida SouthWestern State College. Rascher is Naples High’s fourth coach in six seasons since Iamurri’s departure.

A mainstay on the local travel softball scene, Rascher has led the successful Naples Lady Hammerheads program for several years — a post he still holds. Rascher envisions the Lady Hammerheads as a feeder program for Naples, much like the Naples Braves and Naples Queens Little League squads were for Iamurri years ago.

“He knows a lot about game-time decisions and how to build a successful lineup,” Lykins said. “He brings so much energy to the practices. He stresses that how we practice shows up in how we play in games. If you mess around in practice, it’s not as easy to play well in games. But he’s also able to balance out having fun and being serious in practice. He definitely gets the most out of us.”

Rascher deflects credit for the team’s early success, saying the girls completely bought in and were willing to put in the work in practice.

“The girls wanted to be there and they wanted to improve,” Rascher said. “Having talked to the seniors coming into the season, they wanted to be pushed more. This is a really good group of senior leaders. They’ve helped me make the adjustment and I hope I’ve helped them get better. I’d feel so bad for them if our season ended this way. They deserve more.”

Naples has gotten an injection of new talent to go along with established veterans like Lykins, fellow senior Delaney Heidel and junior standout catcher Caroline Figueroa. Junior Haelee Angelico transferred from Seacrest Country Day School; and senior Alyson Marcum, a powerful lefty hitter and pitcher who’s committed to FSW next year, moved in from Missouri. The additions of Angelico and Marcum have allowed the speedy, athletic Lykins, a Division I commit to Furman, to move from the pitching circle to shortstop. Sophomore third baseman Melissa Morales transferred from Golden Gate; and freshman Gabby Rascher, the coach’s ultra-talented daughter, starts at second base.

Naples now boasts an outstanding infield defense to go with improved pitching.

“I basically pitched because I had to because let’s face it, I wasn’t that great,” Lykins joked. “I prefer playing defense. It’s way more fun for me and I feel like I’m helping the team more, especially since we’ve now got two great pitchers. Our pitchers don’t give up hits like I did, and we’ve got a great defense to back them up.”

Naples’ offense was also off to a tremendous start, with Lykins (.615), Marcum (.571) and Rascher (.556) each hitting at a blistering clip. Morales (.391) and Figueroa (.364) were also off to big starts. As a team, Naples batted .389 with a 1.007 OPS through seven games. Overall, the Golden Eagles have outscored opponents 75-11.

“Coach Rascher really lit a spark in us,” said Heidel, a four-year starter at first base. “He’s a great leader. If we make an error, he tells us to move on from it and make sure it doesn’t get into our heads so it affects the rest of the game. And we’ve really played well together as a team. We really wanted to make this season one to remember.”

Naples High softball’s five seniors, pictured here from left to right: Alyson Marcum, Ashlee Lykins, Emily Wright, Delaney Heidel and Abbey Diers.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

Heidel says the seniors on the Golden Eagles have talked about the grim prospect they’ve played their final high school game, but admits they try not to dwell on it and hold out hope things will work out.

“We’re all trying to stay positive, and part of it is also keeping the underclassmen positive because they’ve got a great future with this program,” Heidel said. “But we know right now it’s better for everyone to stay on the safe side and be healthy. We’re trying to do workouts at home and keep in shape the best we can.”

Rascher said he’s also had individual workouts with players at his home in the event that the season resumes, so the Golden Eagles won’t have to completely start over from scratch under a potential time crunch.

“I’m trying to keep myself positive and stay positive for the girls,” Rascher said. “Because this isn’t just about athletics, it’s also the social part they’re missing, too. The possibility of missing prom and even graduation is such a bummer, especially for the seniors. Early in the season we were doing all these team bonding activities, bowling and things like that. And now we can only meet online, which is tough. But the girls are doing the best they can to stay together as a team in circumstances nobody’s ever had to deal with before.”

Lykins and her fellow senior teammates have used humor to lighten the mood but acknowledge the sadness they’d all feel if the worst-case scenario occurs.

“Our senior class is really close, we had so much planned together,” she said. “If things continue as it is, we could even lose graduation. We’ve all talked about graduating online and what that would look like — ‘Click here to walk across the stage; click here to get your diploma.’ Obviously, we’re joking around, but what if it really came down to that? It would be sad for every senior that’s looked forward to that moment.”