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2021 SOFTBALL PREVIEW : Cerritos, Gahr, La Mirada remain area teams to beat

 

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

April 8, 2021

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That seems to be the theme for the Cerritos High, Gahr High and La Mirada High softball teams as all three are expected to win their respective leagues and remain among the elitist in their respective CIF-Southern Section divisions. Norwalk High hopes to sneak into the playoffs with an inexperienced team while Valley Christian High and Whitney High are undergoing rebuilding seasons.

Note: At time of press, player information from Artesia High and John Glenn High had not been received.

Returning players in italics.

ARTESIA LADY PIONEERS

5-3 overall last season

Head coach: Dayna Coleman (eighth season, 60-67)

Team’s record previous season: 47-39

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Charlene Fregoso, Valerie Joaquin, Leilani Pati, Camryn Thompson

CERRITOS LADY DONS

1-6 overall last season

Head coach: Todd Denhart (first season)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 63-46-1

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Key loss: Essence Gibbs

Projected lineup:

P-Erin Gibbs (JR)/Kylee Manibusan (FR)

C-Fa (Toafaoalii) Pua (FR)/Natalya Mendiola (JR)/Leiloni Pina (SR)

1B-Samiya Jones (SR)/Elana Figueroa (JR)/Makayla Sur (JR)

2B-Katelyn Caneda (JR)/Catherine Quibrantar (SO)

3B-Sur/Raquel Aragon (SR)/Azalea Herrera (SR)/Pina

SS-Jadyn Nielsen (JR)/Caneda

LF-Quibrantar/Alexa Diaz (SR)/Presley Hendrix (FR)/Manibusan/Mia Rafael (FR)

CF-Lauren Lejano (SR)/Hendrix/Manibusan/Rafael

RF-Camille Lara (SO)/Hendrix/Manibusan/Rafael

When the Lady Dons were making their appearances in the CIF-SS Division championship games in the late 1990s, winning it in 1999, Kim Denhart was the head coach while her husband, Todd, was the assistant. Now, the latter replaces Kim Ensey as the team’s new head coach and not much has changed as Cerritos strives to advance far in the playoffs.

“My role, back then…it’s kind of the same as it is now,” Denhart said. “Obviously, Kim was in charge and she made all the decisions. But the day to day stuff…guess what, I cleaned up the field back then. Guess what, I’m cleaning up the field now. Honestly, I’m way older and I’m a better softball coach. I’ve spent time with a couple of different people over the last 20 plus years and I’ve learned some different things from different techniques.”

The team has won its first three games this season and junior pitcher Erin Gibbs has posted three shutouts. She is just one component of a well-experienced team that has scored 28 runs and collected 30 hits. Almost everyone returns from the 2020 team that struggled through its seven games, partly because players were put in different positions than the ones they’re more accustomed to. That’s not the case for this season.

The infield is as solid as ever, especially in the middle with star juniors Katelyn Caneda and Jadyn Nielsen, who play second base and shortstop respectively, with senior first baseman Samiya Jones and junior third baseman Makayla Sur anchoring the corners.

“She’s got great hands and great feet and she can punish a mistake from the pitcher,” Denhart said of Jones. “I’m in awe when I sit here and watch her take [batting practice]. She’s a wonderful kid.

“The energy [Caneda] brings here every day is just contagious. I know she’s only a junior; she’s an upperclassman. But it seems like she’s been here for seven years, and she just carries herself with confidence. And she can flat out hit.”

Senior Lauren Lejano patrols center field while experience lies in left field with the platoon of senior Alexa Diaz and sophomore Catherine Qiubrantar and in right field with sophomore Camile Lara. Freshman Fa (Toafaoalii) Pua will be thrown into the fire behind the plate. But if she gets in trouble, junior Natalya Mendiola or senior Leiloni Pina will provide that backup experience.

“Honestly, I don’t have anything to do with it,” Denhart said. “My job is to put these kids in a position to succeed. All the credit goes to them. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t field a single ground ball, I didn’t throw a single pitch and I didn’t have a single at-bat.”

The 605 League figures to be a one-team race with Artesia posing the only threat. But the Lady Dons will always have a target on their backs until another team can knock them off the top perch.

“I don’t know where it stems from, but when we were in the Suburban League, I don’t know if we were really well-liked for whatever reason,” Denhart said. “It was good to see [Norwalk on Mar. 30]. That’s a good coaching staff and they put a good product out there.

“I don’t know anything about anyone,” he continued. “I know [Artesia head coach] Dayna [Coleman] puts a good product out there. She’s a good coach. I know [Artesia] is coached well and like most schools, it depends on who walks in your front door.”

GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

6-0 overall last season

Head coach: Rey Sanchez (third season, 28-6)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 102-19-2

Last time missed the playoffs: 2013

Key losses: Sydni Jones, Malia Luna, Johanna Rodriguez

Projected lineup:

P-Ashley Benavides (SR)/Valerie Alvarez (SR)/Marley Cortez (FR)

C-Alvarez/Grace Rivera (SR)/Breanna Lucero (JR)

1B-Amanda Ta’amu (JR)/Maya Cisneros (SR)/Rivera

2B-Mika Huskey (JR)/Rio Mendez (FR)

3B-Hayley Olivas (SO)/Cortez

SS-Taylor Stephens (SR)/Huskey/Mendez/Olivas

LF-Hailey Sanchez (SO)/Sophia Magcale (SO)

CF-Kristalyn Romulo (SR)Natalia Hill (FR)/Hailey Sanchez

RF-Skylar Sanchez (RF)/Hill/Hailey Sanchez

Gahr was on its way to another strong season when the pandemic hit in 2020. The Lady Gladiators had won all six of their games by one run. This season, the team has split a pair of games against La Mirada, winning by two runs and losing by one run. Like its city rivals, Gahr is experienced, having lost three players from the 2020 team, and remains the cream of the crop in the San Gabriel Valley League.

“The girls had always been really close, and they did a good job of even bringing the freshmen in,” Rey Sanchez said of last season. “So, the chemistry was really good, especially our last game just the way we won our last game.

“I think the girls had a really good feel for one another and the game just because we were winning a bunch of one-run games,” he continued. “Anything could happen when you start getting into league play and playing that league competition. Everybody ups their game just a little bit. But, yeah, we felt good.”

Rey Sanchez said he wanted to schedule tough, which includes participation in the Michelle Carew Classic and Torrance National Tournament. But those two, which always gives Gahr a chance to see tough teams, were cancelled. Still this season, the Lady Gladiators will face Los Alamitos High, Orange Lutheran High and South Torrance High, to name a few. He added that Gahr is not going to run away from anyone.

If there is one area of concern, it lies in the pitching department, according to Rey Sanchez. While Valerie Alvarez, who will be going to California Baptist University, and Ashley Benavides may be seniors, look out for freshman Marley Cortez for the future. Every starting position player is returning from last season’s team with senior shortstop and UCLA-bound Taylor Stephens and senior center fielder Kristalyn Romulo, who will be attending Oregon State University in the fall, among the top hitters.

“There’s no replacing Taylor,” Rey Sanchez said. “You’re just hoping that kids follow in her footsteps. She’s special; she’s athletically as gifted as anybody. The girl can run, the girl can hit for power, can play defense and is a natural leader. She just goes about it at 100 percent in everything she does. She leads verbally and she leads through example. UCLA is getting a gem. There’s no doubt about it.”

Third base will be young with sophomore Hayley Olivas and Cortez, whom Rey Sanchez says is a power hitter. The experience of Gahr bodes well in the tough Division 1 where coaches, including Rey Sanchez, will always say ‘you have to bring your best game every game in the playoffs and there’s a different level once you get to the playoffs that everybody has to raise their game’. He continued by saying that staying healthy and getting stronger in the circle are the two keys.

“We are senior-heavy this year, so I’m pleased with the direction of the leadership from our seniors and a few juniors,” Rey Sanchez said. “As far as experience…we’re definitely not

young. Aside from losing your Sydni’s and your JoJo’s and Malia’s from last year, I think we did a nice job of replacing the talent we lost. I’m pretty pleased with our position player depth for sure.”

Not including last season, Gahr has won at least 20 games five straight seasons and since 2014, has advanced to the Division 1 finals once, the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once. The program has also seen the 2007 and 2008 teams get to the quarterfinals and the Lady Gladiators have won the San Gabriel Valley League the past six seasons.

“I don’t know if it’s a secret sauce,” Rey Sanchez said. “Gahr is a very unique school; it’s a great school. A lot of people don’t realize that we’re super strong academically. But at the same time, we’re an athletic school. I think as far as Gahr softball is concerned…I think [former Gahr coaches] Shawn and Joey [Quarles] did a great job with the talent that was here. We had some talented players and that has continued. And it’s continued to be a place where people realize that in the last five to eight years, there is something special about Gahr. It’s been a nice run; it really has, and I’m hoping that it continues.”

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

0-4 overall last season

Head coach: Larry Leal (third season, 3-17)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 21-64

Last time made the playoffs: 1990

Key loss: Miranda Chaidez

LA MIRADA LADY MATADORES

8-6 overall last season

Head coach: Brent Tuttle (sixth season, 96-45-2)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 96-45-2

Key losses: Astrid Arevalo, Leilani Melendez

Projected lineup:

P-Halyne Gonzalez (SR)/Aleyna Urbina (JR)

C-Alyssa Campbell (SR)/Rebecca Eckart (FR)

1B-Savannah Adams (SR)/Natalie Craig (SO)

2B-Dominique Ford (SR)/Layla Monteon (JR)

3B-Josie Dipillo (SR)/Craig

SS-Lauren Hutchings (SR)/Alexa Sams (SR)

LF-Monteon

CF-Grace Archuleta (JR)/Marissa Leon (JR)

RF-Brynn Fukumoto (JR)/Peyton Powers (JR)

Another team with virtually every payer coming back from the previous season is La Mirada. Don’t look too much into the team’s 8-6 record from 2020 as head coach Brent Tuttle always puts together a tough non-league slate because outside of Mayfair High, the Suburban League isn’t that strong.

“Last year’s team is pretty much the same team,” Tuttle said. “We lost our catcher [Leilani Melendez] to [the University of] Utah. But other than that, we have pretty much everybody returning. So, our whole infield are all seniors; they’re all returners. We were expecting to make a deep run [in the playoffs], but in Division 1 softball here in Southern California, which is the best in the country, you can be out in the first round and still have a really good team.”

Tuttle said senior first baseman Savannah Adams is probably one of the best pure hitters in the state and that junior Janis Espinosa, who is also a courtesy runner, might be that true utility player and can be a backup at any position. The Lady Matadores have 21 on their roster, but seven are seniors and La Mirada is primed to make a deep run in the Division 1 playoffs for several years if it can’t get the job done this season. If anything, it will be battle tested and is already off to a 4-2 start. Upcoming non-league games include Brea Olinda High, Chino Hills High, Cypress High and Millikan High.

“I see it as a good opportunity to play good teams and that’s why we schedule them because our league, for what we have, our league is not as strong as we would like it to be going into playoffs,” Tuttle said. “If I lose to a Gahr or we lose to a Chino Hills, at least we can experience that atmosphere.”

NORWALK LADY LANCERS

6-3 overall last season

Head coach: David Gonzalez (fourth season, 21-26)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 43-53

Last time made the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Destanie Cervantes, Brianna Nunez, Angelina Perez, Estefania Perez (SR)

Projected lineup:

P-Jailyn Banda (FR)/Kendall Nakamo (FR)/Leilani Juan (SO)

C-Sasha Gonzalez (SO)/Juan

1B-Itzel Hernandez (FR)/Brianna Perez (JR)

2B-Juan/Kamryn Velazquez (JR)

3B-Cerise Cervantes (SO)

SS-Nakamo

LF-Arianna Ortiz (SR)

CF-Brianna Gutierrez (JR)

RF-Hernandez

It’s been a while since Norwalk had consecutive seasons of not advancing to the playoffs. That could happen this season unless the future of the Lady Lancers program can play like they’ve been around for three or four years. No one will ever know how good Norwalk could have been by its fast start from last season. But with one senior on the team this season, head coach David Gonzalez knows it’s going to be hard for Norwalk, but he is staying upbeat and positive. And to think that the last time it went to the playoffs, it advanced to the quarterfinals.

“We have such a young group,” Gonzalez said. “It’s exciting to see because we have a freshmen class in that has a good amount of athletes in it. So, once they grow, mature a little bit [and] have an understanding of how to use them a little bit better, it’s going to be very impressive.

“We have quite a few girls because we had to combine the j.v. and varsity teams,” Gonzalez continued. “We’re not very deep in terms of varsity-level talent. So, we’re trying to find where girls can fit right now. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to have a lot of flexibility in terms of girls off the bench.”

The freshmen tandem of pitchers Jailyn Banda and Kendall Nakamo may get tested early in their high school careers. But Gonzalez is happy to have them for four years and expects better things from them in the future.

The Lady Landers are off to a 1-3 start and have allowed 30 runs while scoring one run in all three setbacks. Norwalk begins its Suburban League schedule at Mayfair High and ends with La Mirada. In between, Gonzalez is hoping for at least a 3-1 record against Bellflower High and Firebaugh High, which would clinch at least third place and a spot in the playoffs.

“I absolutely believe we can,” Gonzalez said. “We’re only going to get better. We’ve had some real flashes; some real impressive pieces of games. It’s just going to be about us being able to figure out how to get those altogether for a complete game. But I think we will. We’re only going to get better from this point. We’re still going to continue to practice hard. Every game we’re going to learn a little bit more and I absolutely feel we can get one of those top three spots.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY DEFENDERS

3-5 overall last season

Head coach: Nichole McGahey (sixth season, 29-62-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 29-62-1

Last time made the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Caitlyn Azevedo, Gemma Bulthuis, Angelina Pool, Kate Van Kampen

Projected lineup:

P-Chelsea Azevedo (JR)/Kylie Allison (SR)/Bella Bulthuis (FR)/Brynn VanderWal (FR)

C-Quinn Livesay (SR)

1B-Bulthuis

2B-Allison/Madison Morgan (JR)

3B-Azevedo/Jillian Beck (JR)

SS-Brenna Brown (SR)/Allison

LF-Keiara Harvey (JR)/Kennyetta Coulter (SR)/Lylah Jarvis (FR)/Izzy Ramirez (JR)

CF-Morgan

RF-Gladdi Nagao (JR)/Annika DeBie (FR)

V.C. didn’t have a good start to last season and the same is happening this season as the Lady Defenders have lost their first six games while being outscored 87-3. Head coach Nichole McGahey said last season looked as if it was going to be a good one as she was confident in 2020 graduate Caitlyn Azevedo in the circle and Colgate University-bound senior catcher Quinn Livesay.

Now, only Livesay and junior pitcher and third baseman Chelsea Azevedo are the longest tenured players on a team that McGahey says is rebuilding. But she feels confident that once V.C. gets to Olympic League play, it will play well with the intensity of a veteran team.

“We have been fortunate to have both Chelsea and Quinn on varsity learning from great leaders who were there before,” McGahey said. “We have also been blessed with some of the new players this year, who bring a lot of knowledge and experience with them. Our seniors have already shown great leadership.”

Of the new players on varsity, McGahey says to keep an eye on senior shortstop Brenna Brown, who is a ‘great player with a fantastic work ethic’. She added that Brown is not afraid to get dirty and has stepped up as a leader in the infield and already has one home run this season and looks to repeat that.

Junior Jillian Beck, who can play in the outfield and at third base, will split time between softball and girls soccer. In a non-pandemic season, soccer would be played in the winter months before the softball season begins.

WHITNEY LADY WILDCATS

1-5 overall last season

Head coach: Burt Ogata (second season, 1-5)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 38-52

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Kimberly Rossello, Susana Toscano

Projected lineup:

P-Bianca Contreras (SO)

C-Mariana Botello (FR)

1B-Camille Boraz (FR)

2B-Andrea Victoria (FR)

3B-Kristen Sutton (FR)

SS-Mia Sun (SR)

LF-Lois Kim (SR)

CF-Grace Gutierrez (SR)

RF-Rebecca Jay-Simbol (JR)

Another team that is in rebuilding mode will be Whitney, which will be the last area school to begin its season. That is scheduled to be on Wednesday at Montebello High. Last season, the Lady Wildcats had five sophomores, three juniors, two seniors and one freshman. Of those 11 players, five return this season as Whitney will have six freshmen of its 11-member squad.

“They have all matured to learn because the previous coach didn’t teach them anything,” said head coach Burt Ogata of this season’s returners. “There are no tryouts at Whitney. They just sign up through the athletic director.”

Freshmen Luisa Tuipulotu and Ryleigh Shorts round out the team and both can play in the outfield. Ogata says he doesn’t predict how many wins or losses Whitney will have this season with such a young team. But he did say that the Lady Wildcats will surprise some schools.