A season ago, nary a local softball squad made it to the first round of the CIF Southern Section playoffs.
Only Crescenta Valley High and Holy Family advanced to the postseason, with both falling in the wild-card round, while Flintridge Prep, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Glendale and Hoover were left on the outside looking in.
The Falcons, Nitros and Gaels will all be helmed by new skippers, while every team — though some are clearly in rebuilding stages and others are looking for further playoff ascension — shares the common thread of looking for vast improvement in 2014.
John Pehar has taken over dugout duties for the Falcons, who return plenty of talent after tying for second in the Pacific League a season ago. Crescenta Valley enters a league race that many believe Burbank is far and away the front runner.
“Well, certainly we want to knock them off the top and I believe we have the ability to do so,” said Pehar, who inherits a team that lost in the Division III wild-card round to La Salle in 2013. “We’re stronger than last year.”
Leading the charge will be senior center fielder Hannah Cookson, the team’s No. 3 hitter, a reigning All-Area pick and arguably the top hitter in the area. Younger sister Hailey Cookson, a junior shortstop, is also an All-Area returner who provides dependable defense and a hot bat, as does senior third baseman Taylor Hill.
Pehar believes for CV to truly succeed, though, it must get balance throughout the lineup.
“To be strong in our league … we definitely have to bat nine strong,” he said.
In the circle, Pehar will lean on another decorated returner in senior Olivia Thayer, with contributions in a variety of ways expected from junior Adela Alatraca and freshmen Rachael Abboud and Jessica Yzaguirre.
“I’m excited for these girls because they’re really excited to play,” Pehar said. “And they’re having fun. You put that all together and it makes for a successful season.”
Glendale has a new coach in Greg Martin, who takes over a team brimming with young talent.
Of Martin’s 14-player roster, half are underclassmen, but that doesn’t mean the Nitros are short on talent. Still, Martin is emphasizing that execution is paramount.
“I think we have potential, but we have to execute,” Martin said. “We have a very deep league. But our goal is to make the playoffs. We have to execute and upset a team or two.”
Glendale finished fifth in league a season ago and boasts its share of returning starters, including sophomores Alex Howard and Jordan Lousararian, who will be focal points at the dish, in the infield and in the circle. Joining them will be former Little League teammates Sammy Fabian and Tiffany Bartamian, who will start at second base and catcher, respectively.
“Of course, I think we have the talent, but talent doesn’t win games, execution does,” Martin said.
In the wake of the graduation of four-year standout Kaitlyn Williams, Hoover finds itself in true rebuilding mode with just one senior on the team and just three players with varsity experience.
“We’ll see what this year brings,” said Hoover Coach Rich Henning, whose team took seventh in league a season ago. “It’s gonna have to rely on defense and most likely outhitting the other team.”
Henning will count on production from senior catcher/outfielder Jenesy Gonzalez and junior outfielder/shortstop Karina Moreno, both captains. Though pitching will be a question mark, Henning also sees it as the possible beginning of a foundation going forward with freshman hurlers Evelyn Unger and Leslie Franco taking the reins.
“It’s gonna be a learning experience,” Henning said. “I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun, because these girls are all hungry and they want to play.”
Forecasting the 2014 season for Flintridge Sacred Heart, Tologs Coach Kirk Nishiyama believes the Mission League will be as arduous as ever and his team will be looking for experience on the fly.
“We’re young this year. We have two seniors,” said Nishiyama, whose squad finished with an 11-12-1 record a season ago and went 3-7 in league for fourth place behind league tri-champions Alemany, Chaminade and Harvard-Westlake, who were all 8-2. “It’ll be a rebuilding year for us.”
Nishiyama welcomes a core of four returning starters in juniors Hannah Zika at pitcher, Kaitlin Powers at third base and Sophia Coffey, who will move to the outfield. Senior Rachel Majich is also a returning starter who will move from second base to shortstop. Senior first baseman Lali Ortiz also got some starts a year ago and will be a regular in 2014.
Powers was an all-league pick last season after hitting .427 with 18 runs and 25 runs batted in. She’ll be looked on to take on a lot of the production duties after the graduation of All-Area honorees Sumner Hanula and Kelly Jacobs. Another departure is that of all-league catcher Stasia McGregor, who was a three-year Tologs starter, but will not return.
“We’ve been pretty much going back to basics,” Nishiyama said. “We’re in a very, very tough league. We play some very, very tough teams. But our goal is just to compete every time and get better every game.”
Burt Ogata, having just completed his first season as the school’s soccer coach, takes over at Holy Family.
Though the Gaels began the season with a lopsided loss to Providence, Ogata is confident that his squad can make the playoffs and do well there after finishing third in the Horizon League and falling in a Division VI wild-card game.
“With this talent, I think we can get to the second round [of the playoffs],” said Ogata, who said he believes Alverno is the favorite to win the Horizon League again and that San Gabriel Mission will be Holy Family’s biggest nemesis in challenging for second. “We’re gonna surprise some people.”
Junior third baseman Ginnes Paladini and junior pitcher Amy Brennan should lead a core group of Gaels that will be the focal point of the team and includes sophomore infielders Mariah Rodriguez and Tabitha Ruiz, as well as freshman outfielder Hannah Marin.
Flintridge Prep is coming off a three-win season in 2013, thus, Rebels Coach Julie Mejia’s aspirations are rather simple.
“We have to improve on last year,” said the veteran coach.
As has been the case in the past at Flintridge Prep, Mejia is forced to deal with low numbers and players balancing softball with other extra-curricular activities and school commitments. Still, she believes she has a valuable nucleus on board.
“We do have a solid core returning,” said Mejia, who lost All-Area selection Ashley Kim (.404 average, 25 RBI, 21 runs) to graduation. “We do have to improve on last year and make a run in league.”
Leading a hopeful run will be seniors Drew Montgomery, a pitcher, and Chelsea Johnson, a third baseman, who will hit in the heart of the order, along with junior shortstop Maddy Maker and sophomore catcher Alex Tutwiler. All four are among the eight returners and the six returning starters for Meija.
Freshman pitcher Therese Orshiro could also be a potential difference-maker, as the ninth-grade hurler is emblematic of the strength and struggles of the team heading into the season.
“The biggest obstacle will be our youth and our lack of varsity experience,” said Mejia, who has eight players who are either freshmen or new to varsity. “On the same token, that’s also our strength because there’s a lot of positive energy.”