Two years ago, inside a storage shed converted into a media room at Barber Park in Irvine, Norrelle Dickson talked to reporters and made a promise.
"We're not going to forget this," she said of her team's 4-1 loss to Whittier La Serna in a Southern Section Division II softball championship game. "It's going to make it sweeter when we win."
Dickson predicted she was going to end her high school career with two championship rings, but the Orange El Modena shortstop is still waiting to get her finger sized.
El Modena returned to the Division II final last year, losing to Riverside King, 2-1, in eight innings.
Dickson and seven other Vanguard seniors are running out of time.
"To come up short two years in a row," Dickson said, "it's total frustration."
El Modena graduated only one starter, second baseman Ashley Van Boxmeer, but everyone else returns with eyes on a title and motivation in their hearts.
"This is our last run and we better make it good," outfielder Tara Henry said. "We just need to go out and play every game like it's our last game. We have enough talent, enough chemistry, to win."
Garden Grove Pacifica and Division I champion Etiwanda are also among the top teams in the Southland, and an argument could be made for either to be the No. 1 team in The Times' preseason rankings.
But it's hard to bet against an El Modena team that has five seniors who have already signed with Division I colleges. Outfielder Elizabeth Walters and first baseman Jessica Hejna are headed to UC Santa Barbara, Dickson to Oklahoma, Henry to UCLA, and pitcher Lindsay Klein to Maryland. Another, third baseman Lauren Smith, is on the verge of committing.
"I think the only team that can beat us, is us," Dickson said.
El Modena was 28-6 last year and has a balanced lineup of speed and power. Van Boxmeer's No. 3 spot in the order will be assumed by junior catcher Ariana Munoz.
"She's very consistent," Henry said. "I'm sure she has just as much power as Ashley. She still brings that same toughness when she comes to the plate."
Junior Dana Crucil, a pitcher, has worked with Ernie Parker, who played a pivotal role in the development of former high school aces Lisa Fernandez and Amanda Freed. Crucil has astonished her teammates with her velocity and control. "She didn't even look like the same pitcher," Henry said.
Not only does Crucil complement Klein, but when she's pitching, El Modena can move Klein to first base, and Hejna to right field -- her natural position -- and field a team of senior outfielders and infielders with the exception of second baseman Micaela Munoz, Ariana's sister.
Everything seems to be in place for El Modena to win, but softball may be the toughest of all titles to win because there is little margin for error.
"We haven't been lucky," Henry said, "and sometimes that's what the championship is based on, one fly ball, one error, one hit, one close play."
No one knows that better than El Modena.
Two years ago, Steve Harrington's aggressive base coaching in the seventh inning cost El Modena a chance to have the tying run at second base with two out.
Last year in the seventh inning of the finals, had Van Boxmeer's drive to left field gone two feet farther -- and cleared the fence -- or Klein's blooper gone a foot higher and eluded shortstop Anna Beardman, El Modena would have defeated King. "I thought we had it won," Henry said.
And so the wait continues.
"We've been working so hard for the last three years, we know in our hearts we deserve it," Smith said, "and we want it more than anything right now."