In a sport dominated by pitching, slap hitters have begun to revolutionize the game of softball.
Since the early 1980s, softball coaches around the nation have taken their fastest athletes and emphasized drag bunting and slap hitting.
Slap hitters--often batting from the left side--stand at the back of the batter's box and take a running half-swing at a pitch, attempting to bounce a high chopper to the left side of the infield or slap the ball into the outfield.
The technique allows the batter to open her stance to get a better look at a pitch. In addition, it enables the batter to initiate her swing and body momentum a split second before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, in effect giving the batter a head start on a hard-throwing pitcher (55 m.p.h.) who winds up just 40 feet from the plate.
In the midst of this trend toward slap hitters, power hitters have become an endangered species. Coaches have concentrated on developing slap hitters instead.
Despite that emphasis, Alemany High shortstop Krista Gomez, Glendale catcher Jenny Dalton and Thousand Oaks shortstop Nicole Ochoa have bucked the trend and attempted to bash down fences.
Gomez, who has 12 doubles, 10 triples and 16 home runs in three years, always has possessed long-ball capability, according to Coach Dudley Rooney.
"I think that because of the dominating pitchers, coaches have gone looking for speed and players who can slap," Rooney said. "But I've always been of the feeling that if the kid has the ability--and the power--you have to continue to develop that in them."
It is Gomez's work ethic, however, that impresses Rooney most.
"We end practice about 5 o'clock every day," Rooney said. "Then her dad comes down with a bucket of balls and throws to her for about another hour."
Dalton, a four-sport athlete in her senior year, hit more home runs (nine) last season than most teams hit all year. In her career, she has 20 home runs, third best in Southern Section history. She is a sure bet to break the record of 23 set by Gina Karpinski of Charter Oak in 1986. Dalton also has 22 doubles and five triples.
Dalton, who said she just learned how to bunt during summer ball, believes that a lot of players are compromising their power-hitting potential for the newest trend.
"I think what is happening is that coaches are focusing on the short game too much," she said. "Because the game of softball is a quick game--focusing on quickness--the long-ball hitters are not being developed."
Ochoa, a junior who batted .355 last season, already has made a name for herself with the bat. In two seasons she has 12 doubles, four triples and five home runs.
Ochoa once hit a ball so deep into left-center field at Thousand Oaks' fenceless field that the Simi Valley left fielder still was chasing the ball when Ochoa crossed the plate.
"I feel like I'm more effective as a power hitter driving in runs," Ochoa said. "It's also more exciting that way."
The achievements of these three talented athletes have not gone unnoticed.
Arizona, the defending NCAA Division I champion, won the recruiting battle for Gomez and Dalton. Gomez signed a letter of intent in the fall, and Dalton has committed and is expected to sign in April.
Teams to watch:
* Camarillo (Marmonte League)--Junior right-hander Laura Richardson (16-3), the reigning 5-A Division player of the year, is a batter's nightmare. Richardson, who struck out 14 of the 24 Buena batters she faced in the 5-A championship game last year, allowed only 11 earned runs and had 213 strikeouts in 146 innings last season.
The Scorpions (24-5), who won the school's first league and Southern Section titles last year, peaked in 1991 under first-year Coach Darwin Tolzin, a retired pitcher with 35 years of experience in men's fast-pitch leagues.
Camarillo, ranked No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports magazine, lost two quality starters to graduation--Kelley Bannon (.438) and Bonnie Billups (.333)--but the Scorpions still boast considerable talent.
Returning senior catcher Miki Mangan (.338), who led last year's team with 22 runs batted in, three triples and two home runs, signed a letter of intent in the fall to play for Cal State Fullerton. Other top returnees include senior first baseman Ginny Mike (.395), junior center fielder Johnna Mike (.270), Ginny's sister, and junior right fielder Lori Vargeson (.240).
* Simi Valley (Marmonte)--The Pioneers (19-6), fifth in the 5-A preseason poll, have finished second in league play five consecutive times and lost to Mater Dei in the playoffs the past two seasons.
Ten players return. Pitcher Heather Santiago (Moorpark College) is gone, but two capable right-handers return. Junior Michele Castonguay (8-2, 0.51 earned-run average) and sophomore Sara Griffin (5-1, 0.30 ERA) will share pitching and third base duties.
Senior catcher Kathy Beasley (.293) returns along with starters at three infield positions: Junior Dayna Skinner (.115) is at first, senior Amy Powell (.246) is at second and senior Taina Tande (.244) is at shortstop.
* Thousand Oaks (Marmonte)--The Lancers (16-11), who finished tied for second in league play with Simi Valley, lost to Buena, 1-0, in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Thousand Oaks, ranked ninth in the 5-A, has all of its starters returning.
In addition to Ochoa, Thousand Oaks features power-hitting shortstop Angie Nau. Junior right-hander Carrie Russell (15-11) carried the pitching load last season and likely will do the same this year.
* Hart (Foothill)--The Indians (21-5), unranked in the 4-A, have six starters back. Coach Al Weil, whose teams have notched five consecutive league titles in his six seasons, still is striving to bring home the school's first Southern Section title.
Senior second baseman Jamie Dean (.578), who has signed a letter of intent to play at Hawaii, is a textbook slap hitter with speed. She is closing in on the section's all-time record for hits. Her 141 hits place her third behind Julie Smith (206) and Tami Delva (167), both of Charter Oak.
Junior center fielder Erin Hull (.394) already has caught the eye of college recruiters. Other returning starters include senior Cindy Abrams (.379), sophomore Lisa Kelley (.324) and senior Kim Neighbors (.317).
* Glendale (Pacific)--The sixth-ranked Dynamiters (16-4) lost to Hart, 4-0, in the 4-A playoffs last season. Most of the infield and two pitchers return.
Junior Cindy Bennett (7-3, 0.58 ERA) and sophomore Darlene Anderson (7-1, 0.11 ERA) again will split the pitching duties. With Dalton moving to catcher, the shortstop position will be filled by either Bennett or Anderson. Sophomores Veronica Acosta (first base), April McGeorge (second) and Anabel Camacho (third) started as freshmen.
* Alemany (Mission)--The defending league champion Indians (19-4) were edged, 1-0, by 3-A finalist Quartz Hill in the second round of the playoffs.
Senior right-hander Stacey Hart (11-3, 0.33), who will play for Wichita State next year, and senior catcher Patti Seresi (.400) make up one of the finest batteries in the division. With long-ball threat Gomez batting leadoff, Seresi will handle the cleanup duties.
Sophomore second baseman Stephanie Parks (.353), senior pitcher-left fielder Lisa Asahara (.250) and junior outfielder Tanya Ortiz (.214) also return.
* El Camino Real (West Valley)--All but one starter returns for the Conquistadores (17-6), who have won 10 consecutive league titles and the past four City 4-A Division championships.
Senior shortstop Erin McGuire (.378), who scored the only run in the victory over Granada Hills in the final last season, tops the list of returnees.
* Granada Hills (West Valley)--Seven starters return for the Highlanders (13-3), including junior right-hander Brandy Brennan (13-3).
Brennan (.392), also the shortstop, will get pitching help from sophomore Jessica Shapiro. Senior leadoff batter Kasey Miller (.400) returns to center field. Karen Berkowitz (.281) had a team-high 17 RBIs last season.