The City Section will seed its playoffs on Thursday, and if there was ever a sure thing, it’s this: San Pedro and Carson will be the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the City Championship division.
The teams have played for the title the last three years, with San Pedro winning all three games.
San Pedro (22-1), ranked No. 16 in the Southland by The Times, won its first 18 games before its rival, Carson (21-5), ended the streak two weeks ago.
Still, the Pirates have had a terrific year, anchored by strong play up the middle by junior pitcher Ashley Esparza, senior catcher Stephanie Spychaj, junior center fielder Nicole Castagnola, sophomore shortstop Stephanie Tam and sophomore second baseman Jackie Conlin.
“Up the middle, we’re dead-rock solid,” Coach Tony Dobra said.
Not only have they played a critical role in the Pirates’ success because of their defense, but they also make up the top five spots in the batting order. Esparza is batting .453 with 18 runs batted in, and Castagnola and Tam have scored 20 and 24 runs, respectively.
“When that group gets shut down, we’re not going to win,” said Dobra, who watched that happen when the Pirates were beaten, 3-0, by Carson on April 24. San Pedro has beaten Carson 15 of the 19 times they’ve played since 1997.
Esparza gave up nine hits in the loss to Carson -- the most she has surrendered in a game in three years. Esparza is 51-3 in three seasons, including 16-1 this year with a 0.13 earned-run average. Opponents average 2.4 hits a game. She averages more than a strikeout per inning.
Castagnola likes the view from center field, where she gets to watch Esparza and Spychaj operate.
“They work so well together,” Castagnola said. “Everybody can see the connection they have. They know what each other is thinking.”
Spychaj, who is batting .406 with 23 RBIs and will play next season at Indiana State, acknowledges the chemistry. “We get along great,” she said. “Ashley’s hard-working and determined to win.”
This year’s version of the Pirates has a revamped look -- only Esparza, Spychaj, Castagnola and senior right fielder Heather Pegg are playing the same positions as last season. Tam moved from second base to shortstop and Conlin moved from the outfield to second base.
“Usually, we get a strong freshman class,” Dobra said. “We’ve always had two or three freshmen, like Esparza or Spychaj, who come in make an impact. This year, we have only one freshman on the team [utility player Cecilia Orozco], and she’s a substitute.
“It runs in cycles, and the cycle has been really good for a long time, so I can’t complain.”
El Camino Real (15-7) is a candidate to be seeded third in the City Section, and the Conquistadores might be a good choice the way 14-year-old freshman Megan Miller is rounding into form.
Miller, a 6-footer who is projected to grow to at least 6-3, threw her first no-hitter last week with an efficient 77-pitch performance against Lake Balboa Birmingham.
Carrying a two-game lead with two to play, El Camino Real is in position to win its 24th consecutive league title.
"[Miller’s] been a little inconsistent, but we’ve made too many errors behind her,” said Coach Lori Chandler, a catcher on the 1980 team. “She developed a sore arm about a month ago and the doctor prescribed rest, so she took 10 days off. When she came back, her velocity had picked up. The first pitch she threw I said, ‘Whoa.’ ”
With five freshmen, four sophomores, two seniors and one junior on the team, the future looks bright for the Conquistadores. Four of the freshmen are starting: Miller, second baseman Kelly Oswald, designated hitter Kaitlyn Baca and catcher Francesca Enea, who bats cleanup.
It may not be a high-profile trilogy, but the next 11 days should be memorable for Santa Ana Mater Dei and Fullerton Rosary.
In that span, No. 12 Rosary is scheduled to play Serra League rival and top-ranked Santa Ana Mater Dei three times -- twice in league and once to determine the champion of the Michelle Carew Classic.
They face off Wednesday at Mile Square Park in Santa Ana in a game that was postponed by rain, then on May 13 at Clark Park in Fullerton. Those games should decide the Serra League champion. They play the tournament championship on May 16 at Anaheim Canyon.
Rain on Saturday postponed the Thousand Oaks tournament for the first time in 16 years. Although teams will still play four games apiece, there won’t be a tournament champion.
Teams will play two games on May 16 and two other games when they can fit them in.
Actually, the first round wasn’t a complete washout. Simi Valley Royal defeated Newhall Hart, 4-2, on Friday.