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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
The Cerritos High and Gahr High softball teams were primed to meet in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division III semifinals last season with the winner moving on to the finals. That didn’t happen. But with the 2016 season already underway, both teams look to go deep in the playoffs once again. John Glenn High and Norwalk High figure to be more of a factor in the Suburban League while Valley Christian High and Whitney High will field young squads.
Returning players in italics
8-14 overall last season, 1-11 in the Suburban League, seventh place
Head coach: Dayna Feenstra (third season, 13-27)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 36-77
Last appearance in the playoffs: 1992
Key losses: Crystal Briseno, Destiny Briseno, Briana Perez
P-Destinee Alvarez (SR)/Brenda Duran (FR)/Michaela Benzor-Smith (JR)
C-Beautiena Mataele (FR)/Alyssa Medina (JR)
1B-Duran/Ayanna Jimenez (SO)
2B-Natalie Luna (FR)
3B-Alvarez/Jessica Hernandez (SO)/Darlene Hurtado (SO)
SS-Alyssa Rios (JR)
OF-Alijah Vega (SR)
OF-Isabel Matamores (SR)
In addition to Artesia High having a 23-year playoff drought, the Pioneers haven’t had much success in the Suburban League. Since 1998, Artesia has won 14 league games. On paper, it may look good that the program gets out to a respectable start each season. But head coach Dayna Feenstra wants more than that.
“I think it was definitely a matter of competition,” Feenstra said of her team’s league woes. “In the preseason, we didn’t face teams that were at the ability talent-wise of the teams we faced in league, especially pitching. So our team struggled with hitting.”
The lack of a consistent batting lineup each game plagued the Pioneers last season as through at least the first 15 games last season, Feenstra used a different starting nine in each of those games. Senior Destinee Alvarez will be called upon to pitch the vast majority of the games. She had a decision in nine of the 22 games. Junior Michaela Benzor-Smith pitched early on last season.
“Last year we just had Destinee Alvarez; she did most of our pitching,” Feenstra said. “But we have Michaela [Benzor-Smith] and she’s been pitching for two and a half years. So she’s very new. It’s kind of going to be the same this year. [Destinee] is our only pitcher we have.”
Offensively, Artesia scored 82 runs outside of league competition but was limited to 11 runs in 11 league games played. Senior centerfielder Alijah Vega will be one of the top hitters this season, as will junior catcher Alyssa Medina and junior shortstop Alyssa Rios. Look for freshman first baseman and backup pitcher Brenda Duran to make an immediate impact with the bat. She is projected to replace the bat of Briana Perez, who graduated last year.
“I’m excited for Ali this year,” Feenstra said. “Unfortunately I think part of our problem too during [last] season was that she was hurt; she had a bad back. This year we’ve been taking care of her back, making sure she’s ready. I think she’s going to have a breakout year this year.”
Feenstra says her team should be competitive this year and she would be disappointed if the Pioneers only had one win in league or less.
“I think every year we have to improve and that’s going to be the goal out here, she said. “We still have a lot of young and inexperienced girls. So we’re working with that.”
CERRITOS LADY DONS
20-8 overall last season, 12-0 in the Suburban League, league champions, lost to Grand Terrace High 3-2 in Division III quarterfinals
Head coach: Joseph Webber (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 88-37
Last time missed the playoffs: 2008
Key losses: Heather Cameron, Megan Darling, Jennifer Iseri, Madison Lee, Amanda Lejano, Leeann Tran
P-Jennifer Morinishi (SO)/Emily Morton (SO)
C-Celeste Borza (JR)/Alyanna Hernandez (SO)/Elise Gibbs (FR)
1B-Morton/Kiarra Pope (SO)
2B-Evelynn Hernandez (JR)/Niki Ibarra (FR)
3B-Destiny Lucero (JR)
SS-Lailoni Mayfield (JR)
OF-Gibbs/Kristina Mendez (SO)
OF-Alyssa Flores (SR)
OF-Katelynn Hernandez (JR)/Camryn McInerney (JR)
Cerritos won its second straight Suburban League crown behind a well experienced, senior-stacked squad. Now, the Lady Dons will have to see if they can make it three in a row with a new head coach and a pair of sophomore pitchers. Cerritos welcomes in Joseph Webber, who once coached at Whitney in the late 1990s. He inherits a program that has produced back to back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1999-2000 and is coming off its deepest run in the playoffs since 2004.
“Obviously right, no pressure,” Webber joked of his new job. “When I found out about [the opening], I did not believe it. I found out the girls were sitting out here without a coach and weren’t allowed to do anything.”
Webber says his most urgent need upon getting hired was getting the best staff he could get. . Denise Betonio, a Cerritos 2006 grad, and Don Taguchi, among others will be part of his staff. Webber plans to keep same goals that former head coach Mike Freeman had last year in terms of emphasizing hitting, which is having a great hitting team to assist young pitchers.
Offensively, the Lady Dons return five solid players with sophomore first baseman Kiarra Pope having the biggest bat. She was at a .349 clip entering the final week of the regular season with 16 doubles. Junior catcher Celeste Borza is a natural leader, according to Webber, but injured her wrist a few months ago and will be out several weeks. When she comes back to the lineup, she figures to be one of the top catchers in the Suburban League. Junior third baseman Destiny Lucero is slated to bat third and is part of, as Webber calls it, ‘an all-star infield’.
“I’m actually very happy that there was a year gap between the seniors and the sophomores last year because those sophomores got such a valuable lesson of going to the quarterfinals against a powerhouse in Grand Terrace,” Webber said. “My sophomores were dynamic softball players in waiting. I could not be happier with the way this lines up.”
Cerritos will once again be well prepared by the time league play begins on Mar. 22 against Artesia. The Lady Dons have doubleheaders against El Modena High and St. Joseph High, face Northview High and Gahr in single games and are in a pair of tournaments. The league title may come down to the final week of the regular season when Cerritos faces Norwalk.
“What I’m trying to tell the girls is, is that we’re trying to make our preseason as tough as possible because if anything, the league just says, ‘oh, new coach at Cerritos, it’s our best shot to get them’,” Webber said. “That’s why I appreciate the maturity and the professionalism of our girls and their willingness to prepare for this season.”
24-8 overall last season, 8-1 in the San Gabriel Valley League, co-league champions, lost to Grand Terrace 4-3 in Division III semifinals
Head coach: Shawn Quarles (fourth season, 52-33)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 68-66
Last time missed the playoffs: 2013
Key losses: Brianna Besenty, Naomi Dickerson (JR), Deidra Genera, Celeste Gonzalez, Deja Portillo, Sabrina Quarles, Destiny Vasquez
P-Hannah Kumiyama (FR)/Dani Martinez (SO)/Kennedy Miller (JR)
C-Madison Huskey (SO)/Alyssa Kumiyama (JR)
1B-Malia Quarles (JR)
2B-Giselle Tapia (FR)
3B-Paloma Usquiano (FR)/Jade Wittman (SO)
SS-Dejanae Davis (SO)
OF-Jazmine Hill (FR)/Alyssa Rodriguez (SR)
OF-Alyssa Cuffia (SR)
Like Cerritos, Gahr also had one of the best balanced squads around with the diversity of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. The Lady Gladiators won back to back league championships for the first time since 2007-2008 and were a play or two away from moving on to the Division III championship game. This season, head coach Shawn Quarles will again have a nice balance and as he says, the team hasn’t missed a beat except maybe in maturity.
“I thought we had a lot of good talent last year, a lot of good hitting and a lot of seniors,” Quarles said. “It was a seasoned group. I was real proud of what we did.”
The pitching is a tad bit younger than that of last season with sophomore Dani Martinez the only hurler with varsity experience. She went 3-3 last season with a 1.49 earned run average and picked up four saves. But Gahr will excel once again in its offense. The team batted .388 last season and will be led again by junior catcher Alyssa Kumiyama (.407, 30 runs batted in, four home runs) and junior first baseman Malia Quarles (.434, 24 RBI, three home runs). Malia Quarles moves from third base, her home for the past two seasons at Gahr.
“I just think she continues to grow as a softball player,” Shawn Quarles said of Kumiyama. “I think the natural maturity is definitely taking place. She has a very supporting family that makes sure she’s developing in all areas. I think with time, we’re just going to see more of a beast out of that girl. The sky’s the limit for her.”
The Lady Glads will have speed at the top of the lineup with sophomore shortstop Dejanae Davis, who stole 22 bases as a freshman and led the team with 39 runs, and will have a rock solid outfield with senior Alyssa Cuffia being the anchor once again with her strong arm, and bat (.405, 29 runs, 29 RBI). Senior left fielder Alyssa Rodriguez, sophomore right fielder Madison Huskey, sophomore third baseman Jade Wittman and sophomore utility player Jessi Alvarado also return.
“We don’t have any holes on this team,” Shawn Quarles said. “We have backups who will come in and we don’t lose anything. We’re real confident with our depth and as long as we can show up and hit when it’s critical to hit, I think we’ll be okay.”
Gahr’s strength will be defined by the influx of freshman that will be on the team. Third baseman Paloma Usquiano, who has verballed to the University of Arkansas and second baseman Giselle Tapia (Duke University) expect to get a lot of starts. Hannah Kumiyama, who will eventually join her older sister at the University of South Carolina, will back up Martinez in the circle, as will junior Kennedy Miller. Freshman Jazmine Hill will also add some speed to the outfield.
“We were fortunate enough to have a big, strong freshmen class last year,” Shawn Quarles said. “And then we, again this year, brought in more freshmen who are very good too. A few of them are already verballed and a couple are right on the cusp of getting verballed.”
Gahr will once again battle Warren High for the San Gabriel Valley League title and will again have as solid of a non league schedule as one will find. The Lady Glads are in the Cypress Tournament and the prestigious Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, AZ again and will face Cerritos, Los Alamitos High, North Torrance High and Tesoro High, among others.
“They always field a really good team,” Shawn Quarles said of Warren. “In my opinion, it’s an honor to be co-champions with them. I think it’s going to have to be a little luck too because it’s very hard to win over there. I think it’s a toss-up anytime. If we can be champions on our own, obviously that would be nice for a change. But to be co-champions with that program over there is not a bad thing.”
JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES
10-14 overall last season, 6-6 in the Suburban League, fifth place
Head coach: David Cruz (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 42-71
Last appearance in the playoffs: 1990
Key losses: Genesis Gonzalez, Jackie Mojica
P-Ashley Armas (JR)/Destiny Enriquez (SR)/Alize Lopez (JR)
C-Devany Esparza (JR)/Alyssa Fajardo (SR)
1B-Maria Enriquez (JR)/Lopez
2B-Dalia Morones (FR)
3B-Armas/Daisy Vargas (JR)
SS-Erika Espinoza (SR)
OF-Destiny Rangel (JR)/Vargas
OF-Christina Shryock (SO)
Last season’s assistant coach, David Cruz, takes over the head coaching reigns and hopes to put the Lady Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 1990. For the fourth straight season, John Glenn finished in fifth place and was on the brink of going to playoffs. But a 4-3 loss to last place Artesia late in the season ruined those plans. Still, Glenn finally knows what it takes to beat the playoff teams. It split with La Mirada High, Mayfair High and Norwalk and had a 6-4 lead on Cerritos after three innings on the road before losing.
“The loss to Artesia was devastating,” Cruz said. “It bumped us from second to fifth and took us out of the playoffs. But there were losses like that all season long. But it’s still in the mind frame of the kids that we have to alter. They still don’t believe that they should be on top and they don’t know how to perform day in and day out. That’s something I’m still trying to teach them.”
The Lady Eagles have an experienced pitching staff led by senior Destiny Enriquez, who will be attending Bethune-Cookman University in the fall. Juniors Ashley Armas and Alize Lopez are solid backups. Senior shortstop Erika Espinoza is the team’s top returning hitter (.462 last season) and anchors the infield, which also includes veterans in junior first baseman Maria Enriquez and Armas and junior Daisy Vargas at third base. Freshman second baseman Dalia Morones is Glenn’s top newcomer.
Cruz says that he’s putting a lot of pressure on his ace pitcher, who is the face of the team and adds that she’s not going to be a successful college athlete unless she’s experienced high school playoffs.
“We’ve been practicing for the playoffs every day since the season ended last year,” Cruz said. “We would like to do more than playoffs. We would like to contend for league. It was discouraging this winter when the athletic directors took down all of the championship banners from the gym and didn’t put softball back up because they didn’t have a [championship] year. That’s our driving force for this year, to get a number on the banner.”
NORWALK LADY LANCERS
13-9 overall last season, 7-5 in the Suburban League, tied for second place, lost to Notre Dame/Sherman Oaks High 1-0 in the Division III first round playoffs
Head coach: Paulette Gasporra (ninth season over two stints, 110-88)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 55-68
Last time missed the playoffs: 2010
Key losses: Jazmin Guzman, Paola Martinez
P-Erica Banuelos (SO)/Samantha Navarrette (JR)/Serena Nicolas (SR)/Breanna Vasquez (SO)
C-Briana Lopez (SR)/Samantha Ontiveros (SR)
1B-Lopez/Ashley Ponce (JR)
2B-Samantha Campos (FR)/Mercedes Colon (SR)/Navarrette/Mercedes Orozco (JR)
3B-Navarrette/Sarah Segura (SR)
SS-Kathleen Perez (SR)
OF-Andrea Villalta (SR)/Valerie Zavala (SO)
OF-Alejandra De La O (JR)/Nicolas
OF-Analiza Barragan (JR)/Campos/De La O
Paulette Gasporra’s return to the softball field as Norwalk’s head coach was a successful one despite the first round loss in the playoffs. The Lady Lancers tied for second place in a very competitive Suburban League and the team showed why it will be a major force in the next several years because of an up and coming star pitcher in sophomore Breanna Vasquez.
“Coming back after a five-year hiatus, it was nice to come back to a second place [finish],” Gasporra said. “Obviously we would have loved to have taken first. But the girls worked hard and we had a good season.”
Gasporra says building upon last year will make this year a good season and that the team has worked on leadership for this year and will rally around whoever is in the circle. Although the Lady Lancers have three solid pitchers plus a newcomer in sophomore Erica Banuelos, the heart and soul comes from Vasquez, who went 12-6 and had an earned run average of 0.78 with 195 strikeouts in the regular season.
“She’s a phenomenal player, whether she’s a freshman or whatever grade she’s in,” Gasporra said. “She’s a phenomenal leader and I think just coming into a program [last season] and having a good battery of players just made it a lot easier to come back and coach.”
Despite losing its best hitter to graduation, Norwalk returns an experienced player in every position and it starts with senior shortstop Kathleen Perez (.348), who moves over from third base. Gasporra said Perez will play in her new position 90 percent of the time and is very versatile. Senior catcher Briana Lopez batted .360 last season and drove in 15 while junior first baseman and pitcher Samantha Navarrette hit .370 last season. Norwalk is also a very good defensive team as its 20 errors will attest to.
Norwalk hasn’t won the league since 2009, Gasporra’s sixth season in her first stint, and last season’s league finish was the school’s best since that league championship season. But Norwalk also hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2007.
“The Suburban League is a very competitive league to be in,” Gasporra said. “And all of the teams, after my five years off, have come a long way. The game has sped up just a little bit. I think being in the Suburban League gives these girls a chance at good competitive softball.
“Every year you go in looking to win league,” she continued. “But I don’t underestimate anybody in this league. Every coach goes into the season wanting to win league and working to win league. Obviously I want to build upon what we did last season.”
VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY CRUSADERS
13-14 overall last season, 5-3 in the Olympic League, tied for second place, lost to Segerstrom High 10-0 in the Division IV first round playoffs
Head coach: Nichole McGahey (first season)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 66-65-1
Last time missed the playoffs: 2008
Key losses: Hannah Buckley (SO), Kaitlyn Carr, Chloe Malau’ulu (SO), Emily Morrow, Tia Naulls, Nicole Parker, Madison Wright
P-Anna Collier (SR)Katie Morewood (FR)
C-Kyla Nunez-O’Leary (FR)/Jai’lynn Parham (SO)
1B-Briana Lerma (JR)
2B-Kylie Carr (JR)/Morgan McGahey (FR)
SS-Chanel Varney (SR)
OF-Mariah Easley (SO)
OF-Jessica Maxwell (JR)
After five seasons under the tutelage of Jim Snyder, who led Valley Christian to a pair of Olympic League championships and a pair of second place finishes, the Lady Crusaders welcome Nicole McGahey as the new head coach. McGahey coached the V.C. junior varsity squad from 1995-2000 but this is her first head coaching job anywhere.
“Being hired as the varsity coach this year, I had a daughter coming up and was interested in just creating a program with kids coming up and creating a relationship with them,” McGahey said.
McGahey, who also coached softball at V.C.’s middle school, inherits a team that has just four returning players and a program that has been bounced out in the first round three straight seasons. The school will not have a junior varsity team this season, so the varsity squad will have four freshmen and two sophomores.
Senior Anna Collier, who was the first one to welcome in McGahey, will again be the ace in the circle, as she has been for the past three seasons. Collier had a decision in every game last season and had an earned run average of 3.48 in the regular season. The new coach praises Collier for having a great personality, a great heart and her love for the game.
The Lady Crusaders return the team’s leading hitter of 2015 in junior first baseman Briana Lerma (.459, 34 hits, 17 RBI). Junior Kylie Carr moves from behind the plate to her new position at second base while senior Chanel Varney (.419, 31 hits, 18 RBI, nine doubles) also changes positions, from third base to shortstop.
The other newcomers to the team are seniors EmilyAnn Ward and Rachel Szucs, sophomore Kaylah Hoxie and freshman Alex Burgess-Allen. Nichole McGahey believes that despite the high number of freshmen and sophomores, her 2016 team can make the playoffs
“The girls made it a really easy transition as well as the school,” she said. “Obviously there’s always growth needing to happen and we’re still working on that, gelling together and understanding my expectations and me understanding where they’re coming from.”
WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS
8-12 overall last season, 2-6 in the Academy League, fourth place
Head coach: Luis Lavayen (11th season, 75-81)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 46-38
Last playoff appearance: 2012
Key loss: Nicole Waldecker
P-Taylor Genera (FR)
C-Jenna Llamas (SR)
1B-Ashley Iseri (JR)
2B-Ashley Perez (SO)/Valerie Villegas (FR)
3B-Melissa Babiera (SR)
SS-Karen Kaur (JR)
OF-Megan Babiera (SO)/Mary Kim (SO)
OF-Hailey Acosta (FR)/Janessa Alderete (SO)
OF-Heather Choe (SO)/Jocelyn Chou (JR)
Whitney’s problem last season was a lack of experience, especially in the outfield. The Lady Wildcats had only one senior, and seven freshmen, including the entire outfield. The team had just three true hitters, two of whom batted well over .500, and the end result was a third straight season of missing the playoffs.
This season, Whitney has everyone coming back except for its graduated pitcher, Nicole Waldecker. Head coach Luis Lavayen hopes that the experienced players will help the still young outfield and the new players in hopes of getting back to the postseason.
“We had Nicole who was trying to take the whole show with her,” Lavayen said. “But it’s hard. We have the same returners and they’ve improved a little bit. But we still have the same issues. I didn’t put pressure on them. But you kind of hope that if they can keep it in the infield, we’re okay. But then again, there was no hitting.”
Lavayen is hoping the team will be better defensively and is looking more confident this season. The biggest addition, which will also help Whitney for the next four seasons, will be freshman pitcher Taylor Genera, the younger sister of former Gahr ace Deidra Genera. Taylor Genera, like Waldecker, plans to pitch almost every inning this season as junior Karen Kaur, the everyday shortstop, will be used as an emergency backup.
“I love her attitude,” Lavayen said of Genera. “She’s easy to talk to and she’s easy to follow orders. Whatever we ask of her, she’ll do. That’s the main thing.”
Kaur, who was the fifth leading hitter last season, will also be the emergency backup catcher for senior Jenna Llamas, a .583 hitter in 2015 with 10 extra base hits. Another veteran who will handle the first base duties again is junior Ashley Iseri, the team’s leading hitter last season. Iseri batted .689 with 31 hits, 32 RBI and 10 extra base hits. Senior third baseman Melissa Babiera complements Kaur on the left side of the infield and nearly hit .300 last season.
Half a dozen players, at least, will vie for the three outfield spots as five different outfielders combined for 17 hits last season. Sophomores Katerin Joachin and Ylia Madayag will serve as bench players.
The team will have seven sophomores and three freshmen but Lavayen believes his team has a 95 percent chance that the team will make the playoffs this year.
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