Perhaps nobody can better relate to the wackiness of the Southern Section 5-A softball playoff pairings this season than Kennedy Coach Sue Hall.
The Fighting Irish, ranked first in the county poll most of the year before finishing second to Irvine, had to defeat Paramount, 8-0, in a wild-card game Tuesday to advance to today's first-round game against fourth-seeded Katella (15-6).
At 22-3, Kennedy has the second-best winning percentage (.880) among 5-A playoff teams. Only non-seeded Lompoc (18-2), the Northern League champion, is ahead with a .900 percentage. But that matters little under the current 5-A format, in which only the league champions are guaranteed a spot in the 16-team first round.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, two of their losses were to Garden Grove (19-5), which went through the Garden Grove League undefeated in 14 games and was seeded second for the playoffs.
But Hall said the situation doesn't bother her. In fact, she said not being seeded can be an advantage, particularly for a solid team such as Kennedy.
"I think we have a better draw than Garden Grove," said Hall, who last season took Kennedy to the 4-A semifinals, where it lost to eventual champion Charter Oak, 2-0. "Not being seeded can take away some of the pressure."
Hall might be right about Kennedy's chances. Though Empire League champion Katella is a good team that features an outstanding hitter in shortstop Tammy Lohmann (.541 average) and a reliable pitcher in sophomore Kelsi Armbruester (0.47 earned-run average), the Fighting Irish figure to contend for the title for one reason: Cheryl Longeway.
Longeway, a hard-throwing left-hander who is headed for Cal State Fullerton next season, got Kennedy rolling with a perfect game against Paramount, striking out 18. She leads the county with 254 strikeouts and has allowed only six earned runs in 172 innings.
The Fighting Irish also feature four players who hit .300 or better during the season--third baseman Danielle McLeod (.397, two home runs, 19 runs batted in), Longeway (.350), center fielder Lana Jimenez (.348, 15 runs scored) and designated hitter Christy Hensel (.333).
Because of those components, Hall said Kennedy should be a contender for the title.
"If we have a good day, I don't think anybody can beat us," she said.
If Hall's assessment is correct, then Garden Grove must have caught the Fighting Irish with their biorhythms down. The Argonauts beat Kennedy, 3-0 and 5-4, to win the league championship outright after the teams tied for the title last year. Garden Grove will play Cypress (12-7-1), a wild-card winner over Marina Tuesday, in their opening game today.
Garden Grove's main offensive spark is senior shortstop Michelle Cash, who led the team with a .307 average, three home runs, 17 RBIs, 21 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. The pitching duties are handled primarily by junior right-hander Kim Taylor, who was 17-4 with a 0.69 ERA.
Also in action today is third-seeded Angelus League champion Mater Dei (19-6), which plays host to Simi Valley (19-5). The Monarchs rely on the pitching of Amy Godwin (8-4, 0.71 ERA) and Jennifer Clark (9-2, 0.78 ERA), and the hitting of catcher Jennifer Cline (.328).
Other county teams include Fountain Valley (19-4) at Cerritos (17-5) and Huntington Beach (13-11) at home against Lakewood St. Joseph (11-7-1).
Fountain Valley, the Sunset League co-champion with Huntington Beach but the second representative from the league after losing a coin flip, advanced with a 12-inning, 3-2 victory over Loara in a wild-card game Tuesday.
The Barons' strong suit is the pitching of senior right-hander Rae Rice, who struck out 22 Loara batters and has two no-hitters this season.
Huntington Beach counters with freshman right-hander Stephanie Noffsinger, who was only 9-8 but had a 0.56 ERA and 134 strikeouts.
Defending champion: Marina.
Top teams: Camarillo (21-4), Fountain Valley (19-4), Garden Grove (19-5), Katella (15-6), Kennedy (22-3), Lompoc (18-2), Mater Dei (19-6).
Dark horses: Simi Valley (19-5), Huntington Beach (13-11).
Key players: Huntington Beach's Danielle Bowman (catcher) is batting .352; Garden Grove's Michelle Cash (shortstop) has a .307 average with three home runs and 17 runs batted in; Mater Dei's Amy Godwin (pitcher) is 8-4 with a 0.71 earned-run average; Katella's Tammy Lohmann (shortstop) leads county batters with a .541 average and has 23 stolen bases; Kennedy's Cheryl Longeway (pitcher) has 20 victories, a 0.24 ERA and 254 strikeouts; Kennedy's Danielle McLeod (third baseman) is batting .397 with 19 RBIs; Huntington Beach's Stephanie Noffsinger (pitcher) has a 0.56 ERA with 134 strikeouts and two no-hitters; Fountain Valley's Rae Rice (pitcher) has a 14-3 record and two no-hitters; Cerritos' Karla Taggart (pitcher) is 8-0 with a 0.16 ERA; Garden Grove's Kim Taylor (pitcher) is 17-4 with a 0.69 ERA and two no-hitters; Lompoc's Kimberly Wuest (pitcher) is 5-1 with a 0.16 ERA and is batting .500 with two home runs and 11 RBIs.
Noteworthy: Marina, the defending 5-A champion, lost to Cypress, 2-0, in a wild-card game Tuesday. Garden Grove and Kennedy, two of the strongest teams in the playoffs, move up a notch in division. Both were knocked off by Charter Oak in 2-0 games in the 4-A playoffs last year--Kennedy in the semifinals and the Argonauts in the final.