GLENDALE — With nary a league title or a playoff win among local softball teams a season ago, the 2011 season that opens today will be one in which improvement is sought across the board.
Crescenta Valley High, the area's most storied program, finished just a game away from claiming the Pacific League title despite going through what many deemed a rebuilding year, while Flintridge Prep and Holy Family worked their way into the postseason only to fall in the wild-card round.
Meanwhile, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Hoover and Glendale are all looking to scrap their way into postseason slots, as well.
"You're always hopeful at the start of the season," said Berry, whose Falcons are led by the return of reigning All-Area Player of the Year Erin Ashby.
While Ashby and Co. must deal with the considerable loss of four-year standout Alyssa Sovereign to graduation, Crescenta Valley also offers an abundance of returners from last season's 18-9 squad that lost a nailbiter to Colton in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs.
All-Area picks Sydney House (first base), Allison Lacey (second base) and Cece Martinez (center field) will return along with Ashby to provide a solid and experienced core.
"Those type of athletes don't come around that often," Berry said. "The leadership they provide, also, that's a good thing to have."
Outfielder Delaney Gay and catcher Kelly Bako also return with starting experience, bolstered by the addition of shortstop Brielle Walker, who missed all of last year with a broken hand, and freshman outfielder Hannah Cookson, who's projected to start in left.
Berry is hoping to be able to spell Ashby in the pitching circle if he can, as the Stanford-bound talent will also be vital once again leading off a potent lineup that he sees as his team's strength.
"[Ashby's] work ethic, it's just unbelievable," Berry said. "She's made herself into a tremendous player."
The Falcons are seen by many as a contender to return to the top of the Pacific League, in which they claimed three straight titles before finishing a game back of Burroughs last season. The Indians, according to most of the league's coaches, are the preeminent favorite
Prep also boasts a healthy returning class, with Coach Julie Jaime having nine players with starting experience back on the diamond looking to contend for a Prep League title.
"We hope to contend for league," said Jaime, whose team went 10-11 and took third in league last season. "We hope to get back to the playoffs and win a playoff game or two."
Much of that will depend on the left arm of Denise van der Goot, as the senior hurler is a reigning All-Area selection who will get the bulk of the innings for the Rebels and also hit clean-up.
"We're gonna do well, we're not gonna give up many runs," Jaime said.
Abby Deckop, who will bat third, and Kelly Wang, who will lead off and play shortstop, are also among the returners.
"We do have a good core coming back," said Jaime, who's also excited about the potential of freshman Chelsea Johnson, who will likely take up a corner infield spot. "I have a lot of depth."
For Holy Family and Coach Greg "Z-Man" Ziomek, much like Prep, the Gaels are hoping a core group of returners leads them back into the playoffs and to a league finish a bit better than their previous season's third-place showing.
"We made the playoffs last year for the first time in a long time. We want to at least do that again," said Ziomek, who has six juniors returning to the starting lineup, led by pitcher Rachel Turner and utility player Elena Lomelli. "My goal is actually to finish in second place. We want to take another step up. With our returning core of juniors, I don't see why we can't."
Shortstop Ashlee Sandoval, center fielder Gaby Diaz, third baseman Jennifer Rodriguez and Melanie Leyva, who converted from the outfield to catcher, make up the rest of the returning group. It's a collection that will look to lead the Gaels through a schedule that offers up just four home games at the Glendale Sports Complex in a 20-game schedule.
Scheduling for Sacred Heart has also become a problem, as reigning All-Area pick Lauren Torres, as well as senior utility player Alyssa Conti are currently playing crucial roles in the school's soccer team's quest for a CIF Southern Section Division I title and a possible subsequent run at repeating as CIF Southern California Regional Championships titlists.
While the soccer team won the Mission League title, with perennial standouts Alemany and Chaminade favorites for the top two spots, Nishiyama is hopeful that the Tologs can squeeze their way back into the playoffs in the third spot.
"We're just gonna try and compete," said Nishiyama, who will look to senior third baseman Alanna Pires and Torres to reside in the heart of the order. "Our goal is to try and sneak into third."
Sophomore outfielders Sumner Hanula and Kelly Jacobs should also be hefty contributors, while senior pitcher Mackenzie Lyng will be crucial to the Tologs' success.
"Mackenzie's gotta keep us close and we gotta play defense behind her," Nishiyama said.
For archrivals Hoover and Glendale, a joint fifth-place finish in last year's Pacific League standings saw the Nitros nip the Tornadoes on the last day of the season to ensure Hoover would finish out of the postseason.
While Coach Rich Henning lost his share of Tornadoes starters, he's still confident that his team should be able to make its way into the league's top four.
"I think we'll be a competitor, absolutely," said Henning, whose team is likely to be led by sophomore shortstop Kaitlyn Williams and junior outfielder Kenya Buckley. "We gave our fair share of games away last year and then some. By the time the girls woke up and realized what they could do, we missed the playoffs by one game.
"Our ultimate goal for every season is to make playoffs."
Junior pitcher Briana Manzanero will also play a crucial role in the Tornadoes' aspirations. However, Henning sees his team's strengths coming on offense.
"We've got a good balance of speed and hitting this year and we should have a good defense," Henning said. "I think we can put up a big, big push for a playoffs spot. I'd be seriously disappointed if we didn't."
Glendale sustained the loss of a plethora of seniors last season and now has some experienced players coming back. Going forward, Nitros Coach Christine Paknik's goal for the season is simply, "to get them to realize they have the potential to do whatever they want to do."
Senior pitcher Stacy Ramirez, junior third baseman Kristi Cabana and junior catcher Janette Vina will play a pivotal role in anything the team aims to do.
Overall, Paknik believes any success will come from a team effort over any individual standouts.
"The strength of our team will be their ability to work together as a team," she said. "It's gonna be a complete team effort."