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2014 SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Experience and more incoming freshmen lead to stronger squads this season

 By Loren Kopff

 If the 2014 softball season is any indication what the future has in store for the seven area teams, then sit back and enjoy the new wave of young players. While experience and very deep benches still headline the area, the story may just be on the freshmen who figure to make an immediate presence. Cerritos, Gahr and Valley Christian are predicted to finish as league champions while Artesia, John Glenn, Norwalk and Whitney are hoping to bounce back from adequate 2013 campaigns.

Returning players in italics

ARTESIA PIONEERS (10-18 overall last season, 2-10 in the Suburban League, sixth place)

Head coach: Dayna Feenstra (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 26-80

Last time made the playoffs: 1992

Key losses: Marissa Chavez, Bianca Espinosa, Dominique Gonzalez, Kira Ito, Dominique Moran, Marlena Murguia

Projected lineup:

P-Patricia Calderon (FR)/Sarah Guerrero (JR)/Sabrina Manzano (SR)/Sydney Salazar (SR)

C-Briana Perez (JR)/Damaris Rodriguez (FR)

1B-Erika Chavez (FR)/Perez                                    

2B-Destiny Briseno (JR)/Guerrero/Salazar   

3B-Chavez/Manzano

SS-Guerrero/Manzano

OF-Crystal Briseno (JR)

OF- Ali Vega (SO)

OF-Alondra Hernandez (SR)

Former Artesia and Michigan State University standout Dayna Feenstra takes over a program that has begun to turn the page the past two seasons under former head coach Jeff Hovis, who won 18 games from 2012. Unlike the past seven head coaches who didn’t stay more than three seasons, Feenstra plans to stay here longer.

“I know the organization and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do after I graduated from college-to come back and help the program out,” Feenstra said. “I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew ultimately I would become the head coach here.”

Artesia’s pitching staff is a bit rusty with junior Sarah Guerrero slated to be the No. 1 hurler. But the Pioneers have pitching depth, something they haven’t had in quite some time.

Artesia’s strength lies in the bats as sophomore center fielder Ali Vega, who moves from first base, batted .352 last season and scored 24 runs. Guerrero batted .318 and drove in 23 runs while senior infielder Sabrina Manzano hit .294, drove in 15 runs and scored 15 runs.

“Sarah definitely has come a long way,” Feenstra said. “I know last year she said she didn’t play probably to the highest level as she could. So, she’s getting challenged a lot more.”

Feenstra said that all of the infielders are interchangeable and her team will surprise some people with some of the talent they have. Artesia has won 13 Suburban League games since 1998 but lost to league powerhouses Cerritos by seven runs, Mayfair by five runs and La Mirada by four runs last season. In any event, Feenstra, who has stayed close with the program since she graduated, is very pleased to take over.

“I think it’s different now because my name is on the program and there will be higher standards because of my name.” Feenstra said. “I just hold the girls higher than I would have had I been a volunteer coach or an assistant coach.”

CERRITOS LADY DONS (13-11 overall last season, 8-4 in the Suburban League, third place, lost to Lakewood 3-2 in the Division II first round)

Head coach: Mike Freeman (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 67-57

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Key losses: Erin Clinton, Jasmine Javier (SR), Kaylilani Minami, Miki Okazaki

Projected lineup:

P-Jennifer Iseri (JR)/Melanie Okazaki (JR)

C-Heather Cameron (JR)/Madison Lee (JR)

1B-Iseri/Lee/Destiny Lucero (FR)

2B-Lilianna Herrera (SR)/Leeann Tran (JR)

3B-Amanda Lejano (JR)/Okazaki

SS-Lailoni Mayfield (FR)

OF-Megan Darling (JR)/Alyssa Flores (SO)/Rebekah Maldonado (SO)/Justina Peko (JR)/Alana Soltis (FR)/Tran

OF-Okazaki

OF-Kaitlyn Bales (JR)/Cameron/Peko/Tran

Don’t look too much into the record Cerritos had last season. An injury to star junior pitcher Jennifer Iseri plus another pitcher leaving the team in the first month hampered the Lady Dons just a bit. But Cerritos remained a favorite to win the league last season and expect that to happen again this season with first-year head coach Mike Freeman replacing Bob Medina. Freeman says the players will be more aggressive on the bases and at the plate as well as get up in the count more.

“It’s a chance for me to implement my style of play,” Freeman said. “When I worked at Mater Dei under Doug Myers, I got the chance to put some stuff in but never my own system.”

The defense was solid last year but the offense was blazing with junior catchers Heather Cameron batting .381 and Madison Lee batting .306. Cameron will be behind the plate about 85 percent of the time catching Iseri while Lee will be on the receiving end of junior Melanie Okazaki. When healthy, Iseri was 3-2 with an earned run average of 0.91 in almost 31 innings with 35 strikeouts.

Freshman shortstop Lailoni Mayfield might be the leadoff hitter and has big shoes to fill replacing the graduated Erin Clinton while the primary outfielders will be sophomore Alyssa Flores in left, Okazaki in center and junior Kaitlyn Bales in right.

Cerritos had a share of the league title in 2011, but has finished in second and third place since then. Freeman is confident his squad can take home the top prize again, which would be just the second time since the Lady Dons won the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division II championship in 2000.

“I would be absolutely shocked if we didn’t,” Freeman said. “With the work we’ve put in…we’ve been going hard since September. Everyone is here every day and every single girl has gotten a lot better, especially with the hitting. You’re going to be surprised with the hitting.”

GAHR GLADIATORS (11-15 overall last season, 4-6 in the San Gabriel Valley League, fourth place)

Head coach: Shawn Quarles (second season, 11-15)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 43-84

Last time made the playoffs: 2009

Key losses: Erika Espinoza (SO-transferred to John Glenn), Mel Varela

Projected lineup:

P-Naomi Dickerson (FR)/Deidra Genera (JR)/Vanessa Montanez (JR)/Destiny Vasquez (JR)

C-Brianna Besenty (JR)/Alyssa Kumiyama (FR)/Kristen Redaja (SO)

1B-Celeste Gonzalez (JR)/Alyssa Rodriguez (SO)/Redaja

2B-Erica Balboa (SR)/Besenty/Vasquez

3B-Genera/Celeste Gonzalez/Montanez/Malia Quarles (FR)

SS-Deja Portillo (JR)/Vasquez

OF-Sabrina Quarles (JR)

OF-Alyssa Cuffia (SO)

OF-Balboa/Montanez

Gahr has not won a San Gabriel Valley League title since 2008 when the Gladiators advanced to the quarterfinals. But head coach Shawn Quarles believes the Gahr program is set for more than just this season. Gahr struggled again last season for its third straight fourth place finish despite the team batting .356 with eight everyday players hitting over .300.

“I think it was a learning experience for us coaches as far as what we could expect and the personnel that we had,” Quarles said. “I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed. I think we did what we could.”

Depth, depth and more depth is the story for Gahr and it starts with a pitching staff that Quarles plans to keep fresh by utilizing a rotating basis each game. Junior Deidra Genera won six games last season, had 50 strikeouts and lowered her earned run average by more than two runs. Junior Destiny Vasquez comes over from Norwalk where she was the team’s top hurler but also batted .516 with 32 hits, 24 RBI, 21 runs and five home runs. Junior Vanessa Montanez had an ERA of 1.07 in limited action last season while freshman Naomi Dickerson has already verbally committed to Penn State University

Freshman Alyssa Kumiyama, who verbally committed to the University of South Carolina, is slated to be the No. 1 catcher while the infield is beyond solid with junior first baseman Celeste Gonzalez (.500, 37 hits, 35 RBI, 27 runs), senior second baseman Erica Balboa (.408, 31 hits, 24 runs, three home runs) and junior shortstop Deja Portillo. Genera, when not pitching, and freshman Malia Quarles, who will be a future University of California, Los Angeles player, will spend a lot of time at third base.

The outfield is anchored by sophomore center fielder Alyssa Cuffia (.453, 34 hits, 24 runs and three home runs). Junior Sabrina Quarles is a transfer from Rosary.

The tons of depth Gahr has means that a lot of talented players will be sitting on the bench. However, the second-year head coach doesn’t see that as a problem.

“Girls are always coming up hurt,” Shawn Quarles said. “We were actually down to 10 players over the winter because of all of the injuries we had. Just having various strong backups, especially if someone’s bat goes cold…it’s another fortunate thing we have; to be deep on the bench with very talented players.”

Gahr, which dominated the league in the late 1990s and again not too long ago, could have a better squad than the 2007 team that went 24-5 overall, 10-0 in league and got to the first of two straight quarterfinal trips. But Shawn Quarles isn’t giving his team the league crown just yet, knowing that Downey and Warren are still the teams to beat.

“Those schools are always going to put together good teams,” he said. “I definitely would have to say we’re right there in the mix. I think they have to worry about us just as much as we have to worry about them. We definitely plan on going to the playoffs but we’ll see how it all pans out.”

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES (10-12 overall last season, 3-9 in the Suburban League, fifth place)

Head coach: Albert Enriquez (second season, 10-12)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 35-75

Last time made the playoffs: 1990

Key losses: Gabby Cruz, Jocelyn Galvez, Jacqueline Leon, Brenda Lopez, Denise Miranda, Marina Ramirez, Jessica Wallace (SR)

Projected lineup:

P-Destiny Enriquez (SO)/Ashley Armas (FR)

C-Alyssa Fajardo (SO)/Briana Ruiz (SR)

1B-Maria Enriquez (FR)/Alize Lopez (FR)/Armas

2B-Jackie Mojica (JR)/Valeria Ortega (SR)

3B-Fajardo/Armas

SS-Erika Espinoza (SO)/Ortega

OF-Ortega

OF-Fajardo

OF-Yasmine Rojas (SR)

The Lady Eagles began to make baby steps last season with Albert Enriquez coming in as the new head coach, as the program posted double digit victories for the first time since 2004. But the success in the preseason couldn’t carry over to the tough Suburban League slate where Glenn, although much more competitive than in recent years, still struggled. 

“As a coach, I really don’t count the preseason games,” Enriquez said. “We played some pretty bad teams that kind of hindered us going into league. We were looking to stay out of the basement. I think we [finished] where I thought we would be at with a freshman pitcher and a new coach coming in.”

He says the team is in a better position this year than it was at this point last year and it starts with his daughter Destiny, a sophomore who surprised a lot of people last season in the circle. Some of her highlights were limiting Cerritos to three runs at home, holding Mayfair to five runs on the road and keeping her team in the game at La Mirada before losing 1-0. She received a lot of praise from the opposing league coaches last season and should be even better this season.

“I think she has grown more mentality wise,” Enriquez said of his daughter. “She was a little timid last year. This year [in travel ball] she has faced a lot of tough Gold teams. Her presence is a lot more intimidating on the mound.”

Junior Jackie Mojica moves from third to second and will platoon with senior Valeria Ortega, who was the team’s shortstop last season. Sophomore Erika Espinoza is a transfer from Gahr while Briana Ruiz returns to Glenn after a two-year absence. She was the starting catcher as a freshman. Junior Destiny Hindman also returns after starting as a freshman. Junior Aiyana Ramirez, sophomore Ashley Hernandez and freshman Destiny Rangel are the other new varsity members.

“I think this is the year we’re going to push these girls to the limit,” Albert Enriquez said. “This is definitely the year. We have the right chemistry, we have the right people to plug in in the positions we need them.”

NORWALK LADY LANCERS (14-12 overall last season, 7-5 in the Suburban League, fourth place, lost to Oaks Christian 11-0 in the Division II wild card)

Head coach: Tony Aguirre (second season, 14-12)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 64-69

Last time missed the playoffs: 2010

Key losses: Martha Camacho, Crystal Cano, Elizabeth Gutierrez, Destiny Vasquez (JR-transferred to Gahr)

Projected lineup:

P-Amanda Benes (SR)/Serena Nicolas (SO)/Sam Navarette (FR)

C-Samantha Lujan (SR)/Briana Lopez (SO)

1B-Lopez/Erica Perez (SR)

2B-Benas

3B-Kathleen Perez (SO)                                

SS-Jazmin Guzman (JR)/Navarette

OF-Jennifer Vasquez (SR)                            

OF-Viviana Gomez (SR)

OF-Monique Araiza (SR)/Paola Martinez (JR)

It was another status quo season for Norwalk, which finished in fourth place for the fourth straight time and lost a wild card game for the third straight time. However, head coach Tony Aguirre guided the Lady Lancers to their first winning campaign since 2009.

“We were a little better than the year before,” Aguirre said. “But it’s just a tough league with La Mirada, Mayfair, Cerritos and us.”

With star junior pitcher Destiny Vasquez transferring to Gahr, the Lady Lancers will turn to senior Amanda Benes and sophomore Serena Nicolas, both of whom pitched a lot last season. Both of them are still battling to see who will be the team’s top pitcher.

Aguirre said time will tell if Norwalk recovers from the loss of Vasquez, who is also a power hitter. But, the team still has a lot of pop in its lineup with senior catcher Samantha Lujan, who has signed to play at the University of California, Santa Barbara, junior shortstop Jazmin Guzman, who batted .425 last season with 37 hits, 25 runs and five triples as a second baseman, senior left fielder Jennifer Vasquez, who was at third last season and junior center fielder Viviana Gomez. Sophomore Kathleen Perez moves from the outfield to third base.

Norwalk could have the most returning seniors in the Suburban League and with the additions of Navarette and fellow freshmen Alejandra De La O, Jenise Gomez, Mercedes Orozco and Ashley Ponce, the team is a serious threat to crack the top three in the circuit and put away those four straight fourth place finishes.

“Those [freshmen] are good enough to play but [the seniors] are a little bit better,” Aguirre said. “They just have to wait their time and I think they’ll have their time to shine.”

Norwalk will be tested early with Cypress, El Rancho, Esperanza, Gahr and St. Joseph on the docket before opening the league slate with Mayfair. The Lady Lancers also face Valley Christian at the end of the season.

“That’s a tough [schedule] but you want to face those better teams to see where you really are; to see where you stand,” Aguirre said. “We’re up for the challenge.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY CRUSADERS (13-13-1, 6-2 in the Olympic League, second place, lost to Hemet 14-0 in the Division IV first round)

Head coach: Jim Snyder (fourth season, 45-35-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 74-57-2

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Key losses: Megan Collier, Heaven Garcia, Madison Garcia, Leanne Garrels, Emily McLurg (SO), Taylor Winters

Projected lineup:

P-Anna Collier (SO)/Kaylee Westra (FR)

C-Isabel Applequist (SO)/Brianna Lerma (FR)

1B-Lerma/Tia Naulls (JR)

2B-Nicole Parker (JR)

3B-Chanel Varney (SO)

SS-Emily Morrow (JR)/Varney

OF-Madison Wright (JR)

OF-Katy Feller (SO)

OF-Kylie Carr (FR)

After picking up 18 victories and advancing to the quarterfinals in 2012, the Lady Crusaders couldn’t completely recover from a sluggish first month to a 2013 campaign. V.C. stumbled out of the Olympic League gate for the second time in three seasons and was knocked out of the first round for the first time since 2009 but is ready to rebound this season with a small, but experienced squad.

“I think the biggest issue we had was the injury and the bad back with [sophomore pitcher Anna] Collier,” said V.C. head coach Jim Snyder. “We really had to spread the pitching around; we got down a little bit further in the depth with Heaven Garcia than we probably otherwise would have against some of those opponents.”

Collier rebounded to have a decision in every league game and Snyder says she is healthier and stronger this season. He added that she’s still having issues with her control but her velocity is better and she seems to be spinning the ball pretty well.

The face of the infield, and maybe the team, comes from junior shortstop Emily Morrow, who blistered the area for a .628 average with 54 hits, 36 runs, 21 RBI and four triples. Junior Madison Wright (.360, 27 hits, 21 runs, 25 RBI) anchors the outfield. The catching department is untested but Snyder likes the future talent from sophomore Isabel Applequist, fresh from her goalkeeping duties on the soccer team, and freshman Brianna Lerma.

“I was looking at [the roster] and was thinking we have a lot of returning players and we have some excellent new freshmen,” Snyder said. “But when you look around the Olympic League, it looks like that’s the case at least with two of our bigger competitors in Maranatha and Whittier Christian. They don’t look like they took any heavy losses in graduation.”

WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS (8-9 overall last season, 4-5 in the Academy League, third place)

Head coach: Luis Lavayen (ninth season, 61-62)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 45-39

Last time made the playoffs: 2012

Key losses: Jessica Barnett, Mylan Jefferson, Elizabeth Jun, Alison Lee, Kris Shelton, Sabrina Velasco, Krystal Zamarripa

Projected lineup:

P-Karen Kaur (FR)/Nicole Waldecker (JR)

C-Jenna Llamas (SO)

1B-Ashley Iseri (FR)

2B-Czarina Linal (SR)

3B-Kaur

SS-Kaya Quarles (SR)

OF-Melisa Babiera (SO)

OF-Jessica Andres (FR)

OF-Cecilia Rodriguez (FR)

Whitney had one of its better teams in recent memory in 2012, winning 15 games and going undefeated in the Academy League, the school’s first league championship since 2000. But distractions were the name of the game last season for longtime head coach Luis Lavayen. Whitney missed the playoffs for the third time under his watch despite having, what he called, the best team the school has had in a long time

The Lady Wildcats will once again have junior pitcher Nicole Waldecker in the circle and will be throwing to sophomore Jenna Llamas, both of whom were once Cerritos Girls Softball Association All-Stars. Llamas moves from third base which will be occupied by freshman Karen Kaur, when she’s not pitching. Senior shortstop Kaya Quarles moves one spot over from her left. Freshman Ashley Iseri, the younger sister of Cerritos star pitcher Jennifer, is another former CGSA all-star and will hold down first base. The outfield is very inexperienced with two freshmen and a sophomore.

 “Not having any [returning] outfielders is what scares me,” Lavayen said. “We’re hoping to do okay. I really believe we’re going to do okay. Last year was the worst and yet I had the best team.”

Senior Ann Munoz, sophomore Sabrina Dagoc and freshman Jessica Andres are the other varsity newcomers.

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