It was a banner year in 2013 for the local softball teams.
Leading the way was Bellarmine-Jefferson High, which won the program's first-ever CIF Southern Section championship after nailing down its fourth straight Santa Cruz League title.
Burbank also had a breakthrough season, going undefeated in the Pacific League and securing its first league crown in 26 years.
Burroughs and Providence also enjoyed their share of success, as both qualified for the postseason.
The good news this season for the quartet is that they all have a solid group of players returning and only the Bulldogs suffered a substantial hit from graduating seniors.
Here is a closer look how the teams are shaping up.
The Guards made history in 2013, as they defeated Mary Star of the Sea, 8-4, to secure the Division VI championship at Deanna Manning Stadium in Irvine. It was only the third CIF title at Bell-Jeff in any sport and only the second softball crown in city history (Burbank won a title in 1975).
Back from a team that went 23-10 are six starting seniors.
"To have six starters from a CIF championship team is a coach's dream," Bell-Jeff Coach Florencio Galindo said. "And most of those players have been playing since they were freshmen.
"The great thing is that they have a lot of experience and they have played in a lot of games. Just having the experience of winning a CIF championship is so important."
The Guards did lose a valuable player to graduation in Monique Landini, who is starting as a freshman at St. John's. Last season, Landini was the Division VI and Santa Cruz League Player of the Year after batting .410 and driving in 25 runs. She also had two home runs in the CIF championship game.
"You just don't just replace a player like Monique," Galindo said. "She is just a very special player."
Returning for Bell-Jeff is an All-CIF catcher in senior Samantha Casarez. Last season, she finished with a .412 batting average (42 for 102) and had 15 runs batted in and 31 runs scored.
Handling the Guards' pitching duties will be senior Mia Acosta, an All-CIF selection as a sophomore. Acosta compiled a 16-3 record with 102 strikeouts and had a 1.68 earned-run average in 116 2/3 innings. Opponents hit just .192 off her. Acosta was also accomplished at the plate, hitting .446 (37 for 83) with 38 RBI, 24 runs, six doubles, four triples and five home runs.
Other all-league returners are senior Tiffany Galindo (.327 with 13 RBI and 27 runs), who will move from second to shortstop, and senior Sofia Palacios, (.391 with 26 RBI, 23 runs and four home runs) who will play first base. Moving over to second base will be senior Jessica Pereyra.
In the outfield will be senior all-league pick Priscilla Panizo (.352 with 22 RBI, 19 runs and two home runs). She will be joined by junior Alexis Lopez and sophomore Sarah Vargas.
In the quest for their fifth consecutive league title, Florencio Galindo said he expects a tough battle.
"We know we have a big target on our back and other teams want to knock us out," he said. "I think St. Anthony is going to be good; they made it to the CIF quarterfinals last year.
"But winning the league title is a pride thing for these girls. Some of them have never lost a league game, so they are going to be real focused."
The Bulldogs (25-3 last season) have a new coach in Mike Delaney, who takes over for Nicole Drabecki. Delaney, a lifelong Burbank resident, was the head coach at Village Christian for nine years, helping guide the Crusaders to a CIF championship in 2003 and to a CIF finals contest in 2004.
Delaney inherits arguably the top pitcher in the area in junior Caitlyn Brooks. The coach, who has coached his share of accomplished hurlers, said the pitcher is indeed something special.
"She is right up there at the top," Delaney said. "She just throws so hard and she has great movement on her pitches. She always has a game plan in her head and knows what she wants to do, which is real good. But what I think I like the most is that she's just a competitor and that she is just so focused on what she's doing."
Brooks enjoyed a great deal of success last season, earning All-CIF honors, being named the league player of the year and the All-Area Softball Player of the Year. On the season, she was 25-3 (14-0 in the Pacific League) with a 0.78 ERA and opponents batted just .174 against her. In addition, Brooks had 309 strikeouts and just 25 walks. She also tallied double-digit strikeouts in 24 games.
In addition to her success in the circle, Brooks was Burbank's leading hitter. Along with a .526 batting average, she had 40 hits, 35 runs batted in, seven doubles, 12 home runs and 42 runs scored.
Two other key returners for the Bulldogs are first-team all-league senior third baseman Lily Winn and sophomore first baseman Julia Duarte. Winn had a .430 batting average with 37 hits, 30 RBI, 37 runs scored, nine doubles and three home runs and Duarte hit .371 with 26 hits, 24 RBI, 29 runs, four triples and three home runs.
Two other all-league returners will be junior catcher/designated player Jazmin Orozco (.417 with 35 hits, 22 RBI, 21 runs scored and eight doubles) and junior catcher Bridgette Pisa (.438 with 32 hits, 15 RBI and 19 runs). Vying for the shortstop spot will be junior Mandy DeLeon, who will be joined on the infield by sophomore Cailey Stevenson.
New to Burbank is sophomore Sabrina Steward, a transfer from Burroughs. Sabrina's sister, Cheyenne, is a pitcher for the cross-town rival Indians.
"That should be interesting when we play against Burroughs," Delaney said.
Returner Kaitlin Brooks (.400 with 32 hits, 18 RBI and 18 runs), a senior, is the only lock in the outfield, and returning junior Allyson Capili could also see playing time.
"I really like this group and we have some very talented players," Delaney said. "Since I took over we have been able to have competition at almost every position. We have been telling them it's all about competing and doing what it takes to get at the level we want to be at."
In the Pacific League, Delaney said he expects the stiffest competition for come from Burroughs and Crescenta Valley, while Arcadia could be a sleeper.
The Indians (19-9) are coming off a season in which they tied for third in the Pacific League. However, from that team, the program lost just one senior to graduation.
"We essentially have our entire team back from last season," Burroughs Coach Doug Nicol said. "We have a lot of girls who have played since their freshman year and a lot of them have played together, so we have a lot of experience out there. If you look at our roster, we still only have four seniors. We have a lot of experience, but we're still young."
"On top of that, we've gained some players and brought some other players up. So, I really like what we've got this season and I'm looking forward to see what we will be able to do."
With a team seemingly full of accomplished hitters, Nicol said the key to the season will be shoring up the pitching position. Currently vying for time in the circle are seniors Cheyenne Steward and Danielle Ryan, along with junior Naelyse Garcia, who is hampered by a labrum injury.
"We know we are going to be able to score runs," Nicol said. "Our offense is going to be fine and one of our strong points is going to be our defense. We just need our pitching to come through and we will be able to compete with anybody. All of our girls can hit the ball."
Returning to power that offense are a pair of first-team league selections: junior catcher Michelle Santiago and junior outfielder Delaney Nicol. Santiago batted .443 and tallied 35 hits to go along with 13 RBI, 34 runs, four triples and five home runs. Nicol finished with a .449 average with 31 hits, 19 RBI, 21 runs and three home runs.
Also returning from second-team all-league campaigns are senior outfielder Sidney Ortega (.418 with 33 hits, 15 RBI, 22 runs and four triples) and sophomore shortstop Kaitlin Okimoto (.398 with 35 hits, 28 RBI, 17 runs and six triples).
Playing at first base for the Indians will be junior Tori Talaveria and senior Aimee Rodriguez and junior Kailanie Oasay will be at second base. Nicol said Rodriguez is a versicle athlete who will see time at various positions, like third, with junior Sabrina Espitia. Junior Jessica Little and freshman Destiny Velasquez could also see time at catcher.
In the outfield alongside Nicol and Ortega will be returner Dominique Santos, a junior, along with Garcia. A freshman who could also see playing time is Amanda Flores.
"In league, sure Burbank has to be the favorite," Nicol said. "Any time you got a girl like Caitlyn Brooks pitching you have to be the favorite. But I love my team and the way that they work. They really have been working hard to get ready for the season, really since August.
"I really think that we have, from numbers one through 18, one of the most talented teams in the league, if not the area. And I usually don't say that."
The Pioneers graduated only three seniors from a team that went 8-13 a year ago and placed third in the Liberty League.
Although Providence has its share of returning players, coach Joel Curtis said he expects the competition to be tough in league this season.
"With Archer and Faith Baptist in the league you have to expect them to have good teams," Curtis said. "Then you have Pacifica Christian and we had some good games against them last year. So we know things are going to be tough in league this season."
In 2013, Faith Baptist captured the league championship and Pacifica Christian was second.
The coach said his team's fortunes will likely rest with the success of senior Sierra Nelson, a returning all-league player. Nelson hobbled through last season and gutted it out in the circle despite suffering from a knee injury. Curtis said Nelson had surgery during the offseason and looks to have recovered fully.
"From what I know she is doing very well," Curtis said. "I'm expecting her to come back and be stronger than she was last season. We will need her to come through for us this season."
Nelson will be the only senior on the Providence roster this season. The team will also consist of six juniors, five of whom will be three-year players.
"We do have some good players, so I'm very hopeful," Curtis said. "It is also a very good group of players. That's one of the good things about coaching at Providence is that you always get players who are respectable and who are good kids."
Returning for the Pioneers will be junior Tabitha Taylan, who will do the catching, junior Dominique Dominguez, who is a utility player, juniors Allison Menendez and Selina Hasrouty in the outfield, junior Meghan Mai at first base, sophomore Fabi Jimenez at shortstop and freshman Christy Hoffman at third. Junior Veronica Abuyog could also see playing time, along with junior Rachel Camonayan.
"We have three freshmen, one who has played and the other two haven't," Curtis said. "So we will just have to see where they can fit in."