It's not often that a team coming off a season in which it was only one game over .500 is considered among the best, but that's the case with Fullerton Rosary.
The Royals were 16-15 last season, were ousted in the second round of the Southern Section Division IV playoffs by one of the least-notable teams they played, and yet are among the top contenders for the Division I title this season.
Fourteen of their 15 losses in 2002 were to teams that were ranked in The Times' top 25.
"I think we focused a lot on our opponents last year because we were playing so many good teams to the detriment of focusing on ourselves," said Coach Tom Tice, who was responsible for putting together last season's brutal schedule. "Now, we're not worrying about what the other team's doing, but we're just trying to worry about ourselves.
"We've tried to go back to basics, make things fun, shorten practices. We added a coach, Jeff Weber, who has helped the offense and helped me refocus on the basics and why I started coaching, more on the joy of things rather than the stress of things."
Losing only two starters, Tice's stress level is much reduced, and with their new attitude and strength up the middle, the Royals figure to make plenty of noise this season.
There are seven seniors, including shortstop Lizzie Hagen and second baseman Lindsay Nuckolls, who have been in the starting lineup since Day 1 as freshmen. Another is Darcie McClelland, who began her career as third-string pitcher on the junior varsity and moved from fourth to first in the rotation over the course of her sophomore season.
Senior catcher Caitlin Carroll bats cleanup and center fielder Kaitlin Cochran led the team in nearly every offensive category last season as a freshman.
"Last year was preparation for this year in a lot of ways," Tice said. "We haven't really made the schedule much easier.... The difference is we're just better and ready to win, instead of ready to compete and come close."
The first indication that this is Rosary's year came last week with its 4-2 victory over Santa Ana Foothill.
In the decisive fifth inning, Nicole Churnock scored on a run-scoring groundout by Cristen Lee, and Cochran squeezed home Nuckolls. Last season, Foothill beat Rosary twice, giving the Knights four victories in three seasons, including Hagen's and Nuckolls' freshman season when the Royals were one out away from a victory.
"The kids know who the good teams and pitchers are, and for us to keep telling them is redundant," Tice said. "If you don't focus on yourself, you lose your own identity, or maybe never have an identity."
Hagen, one of three Royals who has four runs batted in, said this is "like a totally different team."
"We're more inspired, we have more spirit, more energy," she said. "We have more desire to win. I think we can go all the way and win [the title] this year."
Four seniors have decided on their college choices. Nuckolls, who wants to stay close to home and attend a religious school, will attend Biola. Hagen will attend Pacific, Carroll signed Thursday with Sacred Heart and McClelland is going to Brown.
"Coaches are stressing that the game we're playing right now is the biggest game of the year, and don't look to the future," said McClelland, who is 3-0 with a 0.39 earned-run average. "Last year in the playoffs, we looked straight past [Irvine] Northwood and got beat."
Northwood was the only team not ranked by The Times to beat the second-seeded Royals last year.
Garden Grove Pacifica, the No. 1 team in the Southland this week, and Santa Ana Mater Dei were the biggest winners last week in the Ramada Express Tournament of Champions at Bullhead City, Nev.
The tournament brought together some of the top programs in the nation. The title game was rained out, so Pacifica and Mater Dei coaches agreed to call it a co-championship instead of playing at a neutral site at a later date.
"All the hoopla that goes with the tournament wouldn't be there if we played it in Orange County," Pacifica Coach Rob Weil said. "We both thought, 'If we can't play it here, call it co-champions and go from there.' "
It is the first co-championship in the tournament's eight years.
Weil was especially pleased with the off-field result.
"We left with a group of kids and a few veterans not knowing where we stood," he said. "But the tournament brought our team close together. The team atmosphere was phenomenal."
A team that didn't have the kind of tournament it hoped for in Nevada was Whittier California. On Tuesday, senior shortstop Kellie Kruse needed 11 stitches in her finger because of a fluke injury that occurred while she loaded bat bags into a trailer.
"She almost lost her finger," said Kellie's dad, Jim Kruse, the California coach. "It was a miserable thing. We brought in sophomore center fielder Kristy Calzada, and she did a great job."
After losing the first-round game to Gainesville (Fla.) Buchholz, 2-1, on two eighth-inning throwing errors, California reached the consolation championship game. It, too, was rained out.
Closer to home, Corona won its own tournament behind pitcher Brittany Barger. The Panthers defeated Etiwanda and Riverside Poly en route to the championship, sparking a move from No. 24 to No. 4 in The Times' rankings.
Barger won a duel with Riverside Poly's Mindy Cowles in the title game. Each gave up only three hits. Corona's Brooke LeSage scored from first base on Brooke Phipps' single and an error in the first inning to give the Panthers the run they needed.