Lilly Fangel and Marina Lyon have a lot in common.
The Natick High seniors are two-sport athletes, they’re captains in softball, both hit over .500 last year and they’ll be playing softball at Division 3 colleges next spring. Another interesting link is the position they played in their other sport — Fangel was the goaltender on the Natick girls ice-hockey team and Lyon was the goalie on the girls soccer squad last fall.
On the diamond, both girls, who are quality students, play key positions — Fangel is the Redhawks’ catcher and Lyon is the shortstop. Another bond is their roots; both players were born and raised in Natick.
Along with top-notch teammates, Fangel and Lyon were prime contributors who helped elevate the Redhawks’ stature in softball.
After a five-year drought of failing to qualify for the playoffs, both played key roles as sophomores and juniors, enabling Natick to earn tourney berths. The Redhawks were 16-4 and 12-6 the last two seasons.
So, it’s not unusual that both competitors were scouted often by college coaches and recruiters. Fangel will be playing for Nichols and Lyon will be competing at Middlebury.
Unfortunately, the girls, like so many other spring-sport athletes, have had their season disrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic. They continue to wait and wonder if the MIAA will cancel all spring sports or whether there’ll be an abbreviated schedule.
Following is a profile of the players who discuss their athletic careers, their goals for their final season that still remains in jeopardy, their disappointments caused by the virus, and their hopes moving forward.
A four-year varsity player, the 5-foot-8 Fangel hit .530 last year and her five triples led the team. But, her work on defense (she threw 12 runners out trying to steal second)
also gets high marks.
New coach Diane Whittaker, who was Natick’s jayvee coach last year, is delighted to have Fangel behind the plate. “Lilly is a smart defensive player,’’ Whittaker said. “She reads the field well and also understands the hitters. She sees what the team needs and her awareness is excellent. Her quick release to second is amazing, her softball IQ is very high and her technique is solid.’’
Whittaker, who has four captains, admires the leadership style Fangel displays. “Lilly leads by example but she’s also vocal,’’ Whittaker noted. “She creates a positive culture and brings a sense of comfort.’’
Comfort and calm are what’s important now. The covid-19 virus has put Fangel’s final season in doubt and her emotions reflect that. But, she’d prefer to see her country get well quickly.
“The health of our nation and the world comes first,’’ she emphasized. “I’d rather be healthy than playing and be at risk. If I miss my final season, it’ll be disappointing and upsetting but it’s reassuring that I’ve got four years of college softball to look forward to. It’ll be unfortunate to miss that final ride with great teammates but I fully understand how serious the situation is.’’
Fangel said that the friendships and the chemistry of this year’s team would make her final season “special’’ because “our veterans and underclassmen formed a close-knit group.’’
But, if the season is canceled, Fangel said she’ll spend her summer focusing on club softball and “preparing to get into great shape for college softball.’’
While waiting to see if spring sports will be conducted, Fangel contacted her teammates often. “I tried to encourage them to keep their spirits up,’’ she noted. “It was all about staying optimistic. When a final decision is made, we’ll have a team meeting with our coach.’’
If the season is a go, Natick softball fans will see a laid-back hitter in Fangel, who likes taking the first pitch. “I like to read the pitcher and see what she’ll throw,’’ Fangel said. “I try to make contact but I can hit for power. On the defensive end, I like to keep runners on their toes. And, I’ll always try to block the plate and dive for foul balls.’’
Fangel’s goals this season, which were set long before the virus spread, were to improve every day, both as a team and individually, and to qualify for the playoffs again. “I want us to go as deep as possible in the tourney,’’ she emphasized. “I believe we can because we’ve got talent and chemistry. Of our seven returnees, four are captains.’’
Natick’s other captains besides Fangel and Lyon are Hannah Goldman and Katherine Canty. Goldman is an outfielder and Canty is a pitcher/second baseman. “Hannah has speed and tracks a ball effectively in the outfield,’’ Fangel said. “She’s a quality contributor. Katherine is a solid pitcher who works well under pressure. She’s also a smooth fielder.’’
Fangel is also optimistic about Natick’s new leader. “Coach Whittaker has been part of the Natick softball family and I see good things for the future,’’ she noted. “A former Division 1 player, she’s got the experience of playing at a high level and she’s a motivator.’’
Fangel’s best game as a Redhawk occurred last year against Needham. She went 3-for-4, had three triples and three RBIs in a 23-5 triumph. “My top thrill, however, was beating Newton North last year, 7-5,’’ she said. “I got two RBIs but more importantly we beat them for the first time in our program’s history.’’
Fangel, who plans on majoring in criminal justice at Nichols, was high on that school’s recruiting list. The Nichols staff was scouting Fangel as a freshman.
“I’ve played club softball for five years and that’s where the recruiting started,’’ Fangel said. “Nichols’ coach, Kristan Mallet, also saw me play against Newton North and Lincoln-Sudbury. She liked my focus. I committed verbally last year and signed a letter of intent last October. The coach said if I keep hitting well, chances are good I’ll play a lot.’’
Fangel knows the transition to college ball will be challenging. “It’ll be more intense, the talent level will be greater and the pace of the game will be faster,’’ she offered. “I can handle the speed of the game and I think I’ll be able to adjust quickly in the other areas.’’
Relying on a competitive philosophy that stresses reaching her potential and having fun, Fangel also puts an emphasis on winning. “I always strive to win and I’ve learned some valuable life lessons in athletics. Like being resilient when you lose and working hard to bounce back. Sports also teach players to be leaders. The virus has taught me the importance of the moments you have because no one knows what the future holds.’’
Fangel, who rates her mom (Kim) as her role model because of her supportive and encouraging nature, knows her athletic and academic career at Natick is in its final lap.
“It’s sad leaving close friends and teammates,’’ Fangel said. “But, I’m proud we were able to turn around the program and get to the tourney in back-to-back years. It’s rewarding to have made a positive impact.’’
A three-year varsity player, the 5-foot-7 Lyon was a Bay State Conference all-star last year. A switch-hitter, she compiled a .503 batting average as a junior but when she hit from the left side, her numbers surged to .550.
An instinctive competitor, Lyon can also play the outfield. But, it’s at shortstop where her strengths surface.
“Marina is versatile, has a high softball IQ and she’s agile,’’ Whittaker said. “Her throwing arm is strong, her hands are quick, her technique is sound and she’s got speed. She’s a good contact hitter who’s a very smooth fielder.’’
Lyon thrives at shortstop and enjoys her role. “I like the position because there’s plenty of action there,’’ she said. “You have to rely on instincts, be quick, know every situation and what base to throw to. When I’m hitting, I’m aggressive, usually going for the first pitch. The key is not to panic when I get behind on the count. Staying calm is important.’’
It’s calm that guides Lyon during the virus pandemic.
“I’d love to be playing sports but the health and safety of our community comes first,’’ she emphasized. “These are different and dire times. If I miss my final season, it’ll be sad because of not being with all the players I’ve known for so long but I understand the severity of the situation. Like Lilly, I’ve got college softball to look forward to.’’
Lyon says it would be “cool’’ to play softball with the current squad. “We’d be successful because of our spirit and camaraderie,’’ she noted.
Lyon expects to play club softball during the summer and she’ll practice to be ready for the autumn drills at Middlebury. “We’ll have captain’s practices, workouts and scrimmages,’’ she said.
Lyon texted her teammates often during the wait-and-see period. “I sounded a note of optimism,’’ she said. “All four captains met with our coach and we, in turn, tried to lift the players’ spirits.’’
Lyon’s goals are very similar to Fangel’s — she wants a deep run in the tourney. “I’d like to see us go as far as possible,’’ she noted, “but what’s just as important is for us to develop into a cohesive unit. I don’t want us to be a group of individuals. I want us to jell as a team and benefit as a team. Most of us have been together since elementary school and that’s a plus for team chemistry.
Lyon agrees with Fangel that Natick’s other two captains are top-notch assets and keys to Natick’s success. “Hannah is vocal in the outfield, she’s got speed and reads the ball well while Katherine is a consistent pitcher who relies on good control,’’ Lyon noted.
Lyon is also bullish on Whittaker, confident that the new coach will be a plus. “I played for coach Whittaker on the jayvees when I was a freshman,’’ Lyon said. “She’s got good knowledge of the sport and she conveys it effectively. She’s very positive and motivating.’’
Lyon’s top thrill in softball came against Newton North. “We had never beaten them but we did last year,’’ she said. “I went 4-for-5, getting four line-drive singles. I also had two RBIs. It was a big win for our program.’’
A club player for three years, Lyon was scouted by Kelly Bevere, the Middlebury coach. Bevere saw her in a New Jersey tourney. “She later called me and invited me to visit Middlebury and mingle with the team,’’ Lyon said. “I went to Vermont and I liked what I saw.’’
Lyon knows that college ball will be rigorous but she’s ready. “The speed of the game will be faster, the competition will be top-notch, the talent level will be outstanding and all the games will be important,’’ Lyon emphasized.
A National Honor Society student, Lyon isn’t sure what she’ll major in or what career path she’ll pursue. However, she’s sure about the keys that lead to competitive success.
“Winning is the main goal but it’s got to be fun, too,’’ she noted. “And, if losing occurs or there’s failure, that’s okay because that helps develop resilience and a desire to bounce back. The virus has taught me not to take things for granted. You can work with what you have. I can still hit a ball off a tee or throw to a teammate.’’
Calling her parents (Jack and Marietta) role models because of their help and support, Lyon is acutely aware that her career at Natick High is heading for the finish line and her emotions vary.
“It’ll be hard to leave the people in softball but there’s a new chapter and new friends ahead,’’ she said. “I’m proud of how we turned the softball program around. That’s one of the coolest things we did. For the last two years Natick’s softball team has gained respect because of its success.’’