A year ago, Foothill High School's softball team didn't enter the Southern Section playoffs with high hopes. Good thing the Knights were realists.
Knocked out in a wild-card game by La Habra, Foothill finished the 1990 season 17-12. Not bad, but not a banner season either.
This year, Foothill (20-2) is the second-seeded team in the 4-A playoffs. The Knights play host to Anaheim (10-5) today in the first round.
The season has been something of a joy ride for the Knights, the county's third-ranked team.
They are on an 18-game winning streak--including a 10-0 sweep through the Century League. Their only losses were a 7-1 loss to Pacifica in the season opener (when two starters were out with injuries), and a 1-0 loss to St. Paul in the Canyon tournament.
According to Foothill's second-year Coach Joe Gonzalez, this is the first year Foothill has been seeded in the playoffs. It's an honor, he says, but also indicative of a significant turnaround from seasons past.
"This is the best year we've had here, no question," Gonzalez said. "In 15 years, no one has gone through the Century League undefeated."
The Knights' strengths are its defense and pitching. Leeann Gonzalez, the coach's daughter and a junior right-hander, is 17-2 with a 0.34 earned-run average and 119 strikeouts. She has five no-hitters, including one perfect game.
Kathy Shortall, a senior shortstop, is batting .333 and leads the team with five home runs, 22 RBIs and 18 runs. Junior catcher Kelley Green is batting .397, and junior third baseman Melissa Wielandt is hitting .333.
Last year, Foothill experienced some unhappy moments, though none stands out in Gonzalez's mind more than this: In the league opener at home, the Knights arrived at school only to learn the game was supposed to start two hours earlier. The scheduling mix-up resulted in a forfeit for Foothill.
"We also made it into the (county top 10) rankings last year," Gonzalez said. "But that lasted about a day. We were ranked 10th, then we lost that week to El Modena and Canyon. . . . "
They weren't ranked again. Until this year, that is.
Irvine, 20-3 and the county's top-ranked team, is seeded fourth. Irvine, which lost in the first round of the 3-A playoffs last year, features senior pitcher Jennifer Brundage, who is 16-2 with a 0.15 ERA and 178 strikeouts and also leads the team with a .447 batting average.
Top-seeded Hart (19-4), which plays host to Diamond Bar today, is a quick, fundamentally sound team with a .385 combined batting average. Junior second baseman Jamie Dean (.583), and senior shortstop Heather Medearis (.519 with five home runs and 35 RBIs) are the offensive leaders, while senior Chrissy Carpenter (18-4, with a 1.09 ERA) provides the pitching. Opponents are batting .117 against her.
Defending champion Charter Oak, 15-2 and the third-seeded team, is led by senior outfielder Kathi Evans (.500) and senior first baseman Cyndi Parus--both of whom missed six games during the season while playing for the U.S. 18-and-under team in Australia.
Gonzalez says he believes Irvine is the team to beat, though he says he feels good about his team's chances, too.
"When you win 18 in a row, you have to have some luck," Gonzalez said. "But our numbers have improved in every category (since last year).
"I just couldn't be happier with the job the girls have done. We'd like to go a long ways; we didn't expect to be as far as long as we have come. I'm just happy Irvine's in the other bracket."
Defending champion: Charter Oak.
Top teams: Hart (19-4), Foothill (20-2), Charter Oak (15-2), Irvine (20-3).
Dark horses: Canyon (21-5), Crescenta Valley (23-2).
Key players: Irvine's Jennifer Brundage (pitcher) is 6-2 with a 0.15 earned-run average and 178 strikeouts and is batting .447; Hart's Chrissy Carpenter (pitcher) is 18-4 and has struck out 140 in 118 innings; Hart's Jamie Dean (second baseman) is hitting .583; Foothill's Leeann Gonzalez (pitcher) is 17-2 with a 0.34 ERA; Hart's Heather Medearis (shortstop) is hitting .519 with five home runs and 35 runs batted in; Foothill's Kathy Shortall (shortstop) is hitting .333 with five home runs and 22 RBIs; Charter Oak's Cyndi Parus (first baseman/pitcher) is hitting .517 and has a 3-0 record with a 0.88 ERA and 41 strikeouts.
Noteworthy: Hart, the top-seeded team, had a 41-game Foothill League winning streak until it was stopped by Burbank last week. Charter Oak, seeded third, won the 4-A title last year with a 2-0 victory over Garden Grove. Irvine, which lost in the first round of the 3-A division last year, moved up to 4-A. Canyon sophomore first baseman Stephanie Carew is the daughter of Hall of Fame infielder Rod Carew.