Nickesha Neal-Branch expects to win, stemming from her all-district high school days as a three-sport athlete in Chesapeake, Va., to her time as an all-CIAA shortstop for Elizabeth City State softball.
Now starting her first year as the Lady Vikings’ coach, she understands such success hasn’t been expected lately, which also means it won’t come overnight to a program that went 4-19 in 2012, and hasn’t won a CIAA title since her junior year in 2005.
“That’s one of the challenges I’m having is I know what it’s like to win,” Neal-Branch said. “For them it’s not the ability, it’s the change of attitude.
“You go out to play every game like you can win, it’s just putting it together and believing and forgetting about what happened last year and before and starting fresh.”
She will take the approach of small steps forward to begin changing the culture, even as she juggles her new position with her full-time job as a program analyst in Norfolk, Va.
ECSU’s 10-player roster this spring ranges from one with Division I experience (South Carolina State transfer Kiyana Merritt) to players who haven’t played softball in three or more years (Patricia Jackson) or not at all (Emmesha White).
Only three players have returned from the prior four-win campaign in pitcher/outfielder Heather Smith, second baseman Tynesha Jackson and shortstop Samantha Craig, all seniors.
With her background at a higher level, Merritt should log the most innings pitched this year, and will get help from Smith, one of the team’s most reliable players as well as team leader.
A .355 hitter last spring, Smith led the Lady Vikings in slugging and on-base percentage.
“I’m really looking at her (Merritt) to set the pace for us this season as far as pitching production,” Neal-Branch said. “Heather is just an all-around player and a great leader.
“Having them piggy back off of each other, I think they will be pretty productive.”
It took some last-minute recruiting within the ECSU campus to ensure the club would suit at least nine players.
One of those who answered the call is junior first baseman Danielle Horn, who hasn’t played since high school at Northeastern.
Another was White, with her only other organized athletic experience in volleyball. Neal-Branch believes White’s athleticism has already helped the outfielder with the learning curve.
That makes recruiting for the near future all the more important to the first-year coach.
“I really think the university is placed in a hotbed of talent,” Neal-Branch said. “I think it’s a matter of getting out and going to the high schools and recruiting.
“Even at COA, coach (Mike) Pierce has done a phenomenal job with that start-up program. I really think ECSU is placed in a position where it could get back to that championship level, but it’s showing the community that the softball program here is a viable option.”
Craig knows the team’s new coach is on the right track. Last season’s top hitter at a .365 clip, the shortstop played four sports in high school at Pasquotank, and had Neal-Branch as an assistant basketball coach during her time with the Lady Panthers.
Craig would even consider returning the favor as an assistant coach for Neal-Branch next season to help the program grow.
“She’s (Neal-Branch) pretty dedicated,” Craig said. “Our other coach barely came to practice, and she drives an hour and some change to get here, and she comes every day.
“Just to get another coach, the girls are dedicated, and we show up to practice on time. We’re more serious, and we’re trying to win some games.”
There’s one step, even if the primary mission of winning doesn’t happen often enough this year.
“It’s taking it back to the basics,” Neal-Branch said. “I want to be productive this season, but if not, I won’t be terribly disappointed. As long as I can see progression from the first day we started practice to the end of the season, I’ll be happy.
“That means the girls coming back will know what I expect and add my recruits to the mix, and we can keep rolling.”
The Lady Vikings’ season opener at home against Barton Sunday was rescheduled for Feb. 23 due to field conditions.
They will now open the season Saturday at Winston-Salem State against Johnson C. Smith.