In his 16-year career, Fountain Valley Coach Cary Baker says teams led by one particular coach have beaten his teams more often than not.
Yet, Baker, who got his 300th softball victory this season, always looks forward to facing teams coached by Shelly Luth.
"It's the most fun game of the year," he says.
Fun because Luth's team, Marina, is always prepared, competitive and possessing class and dignity.
Marina's consistency this season, which made it a solid top 10 program, and its return to championship form as titlist in the Sunset League, are key reasons why Luth is The Times Orange County coach of the year.
"They play great team ball," said El Toro Coach Jim Daugherty, last year's winner.
He is not alone is his admiration for what Luth and Marina have accomplished.
"She gets the most out of the talent she has," Laguna Hills Coach Cary Crouch said.
It's hard to find fault with those credentials.
But other coaches had terrific years, too. Notably:
* Gregg Aguilar. Los Amigos snapped a six-year losing streak in the Garden Grove League. After winning only five games overall since 1995, the Lobos went 13-7, 7-3 in league.
* Joe Gonzalez. Foothill (23-5) was regarded as one of the area's best. Its outstanding performers were freshmen and sophomores and only two players had more than 10 RBIs.
* Daugherty. El Toro (19-11), which gave section champion Mater Dei a scare in the first round of the playoffs, was ranked eighth in Orange County though three of its best players were out of uniform for various reasons by mid-April.
Luth's career record over eight seasons improved to 162-56-2 (.741). Her sixth-ranked Vikings went 24-5 without a standout player on the roster, showing steady improvement over a 16-10-1 season a year ago.
Heather Hagen, the only Viking on The Times' all-county team--as a second-team selection--is in only her second year of pitching. When she won a section title as a freshman, she was the second baseman.
Hagen relied on a fundamentally sound defense behind her, which typically didn't let her down.
Marina won 83% of its games, mostly against competition nobody would laugh at.
But the team reflects the coach. It was that way when Marina did have the standouts, such as Marcy Crouch and Robyn Yorke.
This season, Marina won its first Sunset League title since the Vikings repeated as section champion in 1995, the year Crouch--who helped turn anemic Stanford into a top-25 program--was the county's player of the year.
Luth admitted she considered resigning "because of problems with a few parents," she said, "but I didn't want to leave out of frustration.
"One reason I'm coming back is for these freshmen," she continued. "We had an awesome season. I'm coming back for the right reasons."
In the section quarterfinals, top-seeded Woodbridge was the defending champion and had outscored its two previous opponents, 19-0. The Warriors (ranked third in Orange County) beat Marina, 1-0, on a controversial play at home plate.
"You need breaks," Woodbridge Coach Alan Dugard said. "No matter how good you are, you need breaks. Marina wasn't intimidated at all. That's Shelly. She brings the girls in as high as all get-out."