BY KONNER METZ
Managing Sports Editor
For a cluster of upperclassmen on the softball field, now is the time for Delaware to finally break through and secure a conference title. They were runner-ups to the arguable dynasty of James Madison (now a member of the Sun Belt Conference) in 2021, and fell victim to two upsets last year despite being the favored, No. 1 seed.
Hanna Garber was a large part of both of those teams, and now as a fifth-year, hopes the experience of those postseason defeats aids in the Blue Hens winning their first Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Championship. To her, it’s the only option.
“This is my last year, and I don’t think I’m leaving this program if I don’t get a ring,” Garber said, half-jokingly. “So I don’t know what they’re going to do with me if it doesn’t happen this year … That’s kind of our big, overarching team goal. Get that ring, get that ring.”
While three months stand in between the Hens and the postseason, it is no secret that head coach Jen Steele’s team sports the talent and fire to be CAA contenders. Steele is in her fifth season with the program, holding a 95-58 record and coaching some of the best talent in the conference.
As the start to the 2023 season looms, there is no doubt that a core of Delaware’s leadership resides in the infield, with fifth-years Garber and Brittney Mendoza. Both were recognized in Extra Inning Softball’s position rankings – Garber ranked 17th among third basemen and Mendoza 18th among second basemen.
Garber is coming off a record-setting year from the leadoff spot, hitting .359 for eight home runs, plus scoring a conference-high 48 runs. Mendoza was not far behind, anchoring the cleanup spot with a .331 batting average and 33 RBI.
And while Garber is coming off of a campaign where she was recognized as the CAA Defensive Player of the Year in her first full season at third base (compared to roaming the outfield in her first three seasons), the best defensive mentors during the offseason have been those around her – at least according to the humble Garber.
“I think Britt does the best job of that,” she said. “Britt has been our starting second baseman since day one here. Although I have these awards and stuff defensively, I would say Britt and [shortstop] Chloe [Blantz] are by far the more experienced and seasoned. They’re great at teaching the infield game to the younger ones.”
Blantz, a sophomore who returns as the starting shortstop, has “flipped a switch” this offseason, according to the Blue Hens’ third basemen. Also in the infield will be graduate transfer Kiara Mills, who spent four years out west at Creighton University.
“She brings instant maturity and consistent offense to our lineup,” Steele said this past offseason of Mills, who made 128 starts over the past four seasons with the Bluejays, batting .331.
On the mound, the Hens return their two workhouse pitchers from last season in senior Emily Winburn (131⅓ IP and a 2.72 ERA in 2022) and sophomore Graceyn Frost (113⅓ and 2.84 ERA).
A key addition to the pitching staff will be transfer graduate student Taylor Wroten, an Indian River State College product who went 10-4 with a 1.71 ERA last season.
Delaware ranked second in the CAA in ERA last year, but almost a full run behind the eventual champion, UNCW, a team that prided itself on its pitching staff (1.85 ERA) and its work on the basepaths (sporting a league-high 110 stolen bases). The Hens, meanwhile, were just 38-for-51 in stealing attempts. But Garber sees it as an area of focus and aggression heading into the season.
“Baserunning, we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to steal a lot of bases, be quick,” Garber said. “Just kind of force the defense to fumble things and be nuisances on the bases.”
Garber is top three in program history with 72 steals to her name, often providing a boost at the top of the lineup for the Hens. It is possible her younger sister, junior outfielder Julz Garber, will occupy the on-deck circle as Hanna works at the batter’s box.
“Julz, I think she’ll probably hit second for us this year,” the third baseman said of her sibling. “She’s been doing a great job stepping in the outfield for us and being a leader as the center fielder, taking charge out there.”
Hanna Garber said she tries not to focus on it being not just her last year at Delaware, but also the last season she can play alongside her sister. Instead, she has put laser focus on the offseason buildup to the start of the season this weekend, when the Blue Hens play five games in three days in Houston, Texas to kick off the 2023 campaign.
Delaware is tasked with a grueling schedule as is typical for Division I softball programs, with 53 regular season contests scheduled this winter and spring (29 non-conference, 24 in-conference). The offseason, however, has served as an intensive period for the team to be adequately prepared for the nonstop schedule.
“Winter session’s tough, we’re training all the time and we haven’t played in months,” Garber said. “That’s also why we’ve been doing so much to stay conditioned. Our running and conditioning has been a really big focal point for us. We’re trying to get all of our bodies in shape enough to stand the longevity of our season.”