BURBANK — High school softball pitchers are getting used to dealing with a different dimension when it comes to their delivery to home plate.
This is the first season the pitching rubber has been moved back three feet to 43 feet, which will likely be a benefit for hitters. Area hurlers are adapting to the longer dimensions.
"We have had our pitchers throwing from 46 feet, so they can get used to pitching from a longer distance," Bellarmine-Jefferson High Coach John Castaneda said. "We want them to be ready."
First-year Burroughs Coach Doug Nicol said the new dimensions have taken some getting used to.
"Some people might not think three feet is really that much, but it's a lot when it comes to softball pitching," he said. "It is definitely going to benefit the hitters, and I think you're going to see more offense."
The Guards are Indians are both coming off league-championship seasons, and both look to have talented teams again this year. Providence returns the majority of its team, and Burbank is dealing with the graduation of a crop of starting players.
Here is a look at how the teams are shaping up.
Nicol takes over the reigns of Jose Valle, who coached the Indians (18-10) to the program's first league championship in 28 years, as they finished first in the Pacific League.
With a large group of returners and some talented newcomers, Nicol expects his team to again be successful.
"Our goal every year is to win a league title," said Nicol, a former Burroughs girls' basketball coach. "The girls have been working hard since I took over in August, and I think we have a talented group of players."
Nicol said junior pitcher Heather Haynes, an All-CIF Southern Section honoree last season, will begin the season on the junior varsity team. In 2010, Haynes was 11-5 with six shutouts in 16 games, striking out 106 and walking 29 in 109 innings.
Taking over the starting pitching duties is sophomore Haley Schulmam, who had an outstanding season last year on the Indians' junior varsity team. She helped lead Burroughs to a league title.
"Haley is a very good pitcher and she is super talented," Nicol said. "We expect her to step right in and do the job for us at pitcher."
Seniors Kayla Dally and Quinn Rodriguez, along with freshman, Kaitlin Brooks, could also see time in the circle.
A returner who Nicol has been impressed with is junior catcher Shannon Trujillo. Last season, the All-Area and all-league standout batted .365 with 17 runs scored and 16 runs batted in.
"She has been just crushing the ball," Nicol said. "And she is just a real leader for us behind the plate."
Returning to shore up the infield are senior Taylor Buliavac at first, junior Allie Grimaldo at shortstop and junior Caitlin Loera at second base. Battling for the third-base spot are a pair of freshmen, Sidney Ortega and Kheanna Mosley.
All-leaguer Hallie White was the team's starting third baseman, but she broke a bone in her hand during soccer season. Nicol said he is hoping to have White back in five or six weeks.
Outfielders will include Victoria Santos, Jessica Rodriguez and Brice Edrington.
In league this season, Nicol said he expects the stiffest competiton to come from Crescenta Valley and Burbank.
The Guards (16-5) began the season ranked No. 3 in the CIF Division VII preseason poll. And for good reason; the team is packed with talent.
"We have just been trying to establish a winning attitude with the program here at Bell-Jeff," said Coach John Castaneda, who in his first year guided the Guards to their first league crown in 17 years after finishing 5-11 in 2009. "We want to win, yes, but we want to establish a culture where we can teach the girls the right way to play the game."
The Guards are fortunate not only to have a strong group of returners, but also some incoming freshmen who could make instant impacts.
"We have definitely had a very good turnout for the team," Castaneda said. "We don't have a [junior varsity] team, so we will keep as many players as we can."
Bell-Jeff returns power hitter Monique Landini, a sophomore All-Area player who will play the middle infield positions. In 2010, Landini — the league player of the year — hit .593 with 35 hits, 32 runs scored, 23 driven in, five home runs and a .657 on-base percentage. She also stole 17 bases.
Castaneda said Landini has been playing travel ball in the offseason and he expects her to have another big year.
Also returning is last season's Santa Cruz League Pitcher of the Year, junior pitcher Jackie Pons, who was 14-4 with 80 strikeouts last season. Freshman Amanda Malouf could also see time in the circle.
Among a group of other returners are senior shortstop Maddy Gianoli and senior outfielder Mari Rosa. Among the freshmen group are third baseman/outfielder Christina Colon, catcher Samantha Casarez, outfielder/second baseman Krystal Ordonez, first baseman/outfielder Jaylen Watson and catcher Priscilla Panizo.
"We have a lot of versatility, so we can move players in different positions if we need to," Castaneda said. "We just rely have a lot of talented."
Castaneda said he expects St. Matthias to be a tough opponent in league.
The Bulldogs (17-10) are coming off a season in which they tied for second place in the Pacific League and were in a position to win a share of the league title until the final game of the regular season.
However, graduation hit Burbank hard, as they lost five key players, including shortstop Kassy Uchida, who is starting at Utah State.
"Not only were those players part of a group of our best players, but they were also leaders for us," Burbank Coach Nicole Drabecki said. "This season we are definitely looking for some underclassmen to hopefully step up and contribute."
A key returner for Burbank is sophomore Crystal Diaz, a good hitter and the team's starting pitcher. Last season Diaz hit .368.
The Burbank lineup will be a mix of some returning players and a group of newcomers. In the infield, senior Jenny Millo will do the catching, sophomore Tiffany Pisa will be at first base, sophomore Laina Do will be at second, junior Nalani Hernandez will handle the shortstop duties and senior Sarah Riojas will be at third.
The starting outfielders will be junior Laura Viebhan and sophomores Ashley Russo and Katie Hooper.
Junior Becca Wright could also see time at the designated-hitter spot.
Drabecki said the Pacific League should pose some challenges.
"CV graduated a lot of seniors from last year, but they still have [Stanford-bound senior pitcher Erin Ashby], and they should be good again," Drabecki said. "And Burroughs always seems to get good players. But I'm hoping that we're going to be able to compete with those teams."
The Pioneers (8-14) placed third in the Liberty League last season and have most of their team returning.
"We have a group of seniors who have played in this program for a few years now, and we expect them to be able to step up and contribute for us," Pioneers Coach Joel Curtis said. "They have the experience and they know what's expected of them."
The Liberty League has been whittled down this season, and there aren't eight teams like there was last season. Yeshiva has dropped its softball program, Curtis said, leaving just four schools.
"In league, Viewpoint and Buckley should have good teams," Curtis said.
The team's starting pitcher will be senior Bronwyn Stewart, who has three years of varsity experience.
Handling the catching duties will be senior Michelle Longtain.
In the infield will be senior first baseman Natalie Ficocelli, junior third baseman Caitie Guttry, junior second baseman Jackie Brewer and sophomore Estelle Glorioso.
In the outfield will be senior Amber Bartmus and junior Gian-Mari Llaguno. Newcomer, freshman Sierra Nelson, can play in the outfield, as well as pitch.
"With our experience, I expect us to be up there competing for the top of league," Curtis said.