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Chemistry of junior class is keeping Gahr softball on brink of league title

By Loren Kopff

It’s one thing to build a high school softball program around one or two players who begin as freshmen on the varsity squad and stay all four years. But when you have a group of at least four to five players who all come in together and leave together, you start thinking about potential dynasties.

The Gahr High School softball program is not in dynasty status right now as it is going through its longest playoff drought (four years) since its first California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section playoff game in 1976. But for five current juniors who all came in together two seasons ago, they hope to revitalize a program that has appeared in the postseason 24 times from 1981-2009 and 26 overall.

Brianna Besenty, Deidra Genera, Celeste Gonzalez, Vanessa Montanez and Deja Portillo all began their high school softball careers in 2012 on the varsity squad and immediately made a name for themselves by their offensive productions. That was further confirmed last season when school records for this century were broken and that theme has continued into this season.

The numbers they have put up are already being compared to those accomplished by the last great set of players who all arrived together as freshmen and spent either three or four years together on varsity. In 2005, Roni Alvarado, Eileen Flores, Corina Hernandez, Amanda Marquez, Lindsey Marquez and Alyssa Morales began what would be a four-year stretch of Gahr softball that went 77-38-1, won back to back San Gabriel Valley League titles in 2007 and 2008 and advanced to the quarterfinals twice.

Most of those players are ranked in the top 20 in the Gahr record book this century in just about every offensive and pitching category. This season’s junior class has already broken or is close to surpassing a lot of those marks. With such strong performances, it’s easy to see why head coach Shawn Quarles sees a lot of similarities between the 2005-2008 group and the junior class of this season.

“Just for the simple fact that they’re all travel ball players and they all grew up together,” Quarles said. “I think that’s where it’s pretty familiar. The ones that we have now; they all know each other. That 2005 group grew up with each other playing for the Artesia Punishers organization. What I think that does is it creates a pretty good core of a team as far as the bonding and the chemistry.”

Quarles is in his second season with the Gladiators and immediately was pleased with what he saw out of last season’s sophomores. Gonzalez hit .500 with 37 hits, both currently rank second of all Gahr players for a single season since 2000. She and Portillo tied the school record for most runs scored in a single season (27), whom they share with Morales, and Gonzalez has the single season school record for most runs batted in (35) and doubles (eight) this century.

“I saw that they were good ball players,” Quarles said. “I saw that they were actually better than I expected them to be. They all hit the ball pretty well and they put up the numbers to prove that. They just surprised me how good they really were, not being from top travel ball organizations.”

“I think it makes the team really strong throughout the next four years that they are together,” Besenty said of Gahr’s version of the Fab Five.

Even when Besenty missed her entire freshman season with a hip injury, she showcased her talents last season as one of eight everyday players to bat over .300. This season, Besenty is currently fifth on the team with a .400 average and is one of six players to have at least 24 hits. She has also driven in 22 runs.

“It was hard because I did not get my [varsity] letter that year,” Besenty said of missing her freshman season. “That kind of hurt; watching all my friends get their letters while I just sat there. But being able to come back the next year and still be on varsity was a good feeling.”

One of her best friends is Genera, who is becoming one of the best pitchers in school record. Already, Genera is third all-time in strikeouts with 158, trailing the great Dee Dee Weiman (1,397 from 1986-1989) and Alvarado, who had 415 strikeouts from 2006-2008. Genera has 13 victories in her high school career, well off of Alvarado’s 52 and only three behind Brittany Nava, who pitched from 2006-2008.

Although exclusively relegated to the pitching circle this season, Genera batted .377 last season which ranks in the top 20 this century and drove in 23 runs, second behind Gonzalez and fourth best since 2000.

“I didn’t really get as much playing time as I have been getting these past few years because [of the previous seniors],” Genera said of her early Gahr days. “But it was good for me. I had to work for my position.”

This season’s junior class has consistently been averaging over .300 and it’s even better this season with the emergence of freshmen Alyssa Kumiyama and Malia Quarles, sophomore Alyssa Cuffia and junior Destiny Vasquez, a transfer from Norwalk High, to name a few.

Entering the final five games of the regular season, Gonzalez is second in batting average (.492) and tied for the team lead with 31 hits while Besenty is one of five players batting at least .400. Portillo isn’t far behind at .378 while Montanez, in limited action because of an injury, is batting near .300. In the circle, Genera is 4-4 with a 3.52 earned run average, allowing almost a run better than last season, and has 64 strikeouts. That strikeout total is the most since Alvarado fanned 79 in 2008.

“She’s a very competitive girl as far as her personality and her will to win and succeed in the circle,” Shawn Quarles said. “I think Brianna has been putting in a lot of time in the cages and I think it’s definitely showing in her performance at the plate. She’s definitely turned up her work ethic as far as hitting and getting a lot of reps in.”

What makes this team extra special as it visits Warren on Thursday, hoping to all but lock up its first league title since 2008, is the fact that the five juniors are eager to help the younger girls. The Gladiators (12-8 overall, 5-0 in league) already have their highest batting average since 2000 (.388) and have broken the school record for most home runs in a season (26). They are also close to setting team records in other categories and most of that can be attributed to the junior class.

“I’m not too much surprised,” Besenty said of the younger girls. “I know these girls do work hard. I heard a lot of good things about them before this year. I am happy they’re on the team because it’s helping us out. Seeing them work that hard as freshmen is an eye-opener for us who haven’t been hitting as well.”

“Obviously just their leadership and their ability to get along with each other [is a plus],” Shawn Quarles said. “I think they’ve definitely set the tone for the type of chemistry that we’re going to have with our team. It’s just a very positive group of girls and I think that positivity kind of emanates throughout the whole team and it sets the attitude for the season.”

He says that the combination of adding more bats to this season’s lineup and the rest of the league going through rebuilding processes is what gives Gahr a great chance of winning league. A win over Warren would keep the Gladiators as the lone undefeated team in the circuit and will give Gahr a season-sweep over the Bears. Downey already has three league losses. Gahr went through the first round of league outscoring their foes 71-10.

“I think we can take league,” Besenty said. “If we can continue to work as hard as we’ve been working and practice the way we’ve been practicing and stay focused, I think we can take league, no problem.”

“We had the talent [the past few seasons]; we just didn’t really work together as we have been [lately],” Genera said. “Pitching-wise, I like having more pitchers be able to help me out, knowing that I don’t have to do it on my own.”

By the time this season ends, a lot of those four-year players from 2005-2008 will see their individual stats broken by either the junior players of this season, or even the freshman and sophomores.  Already, Malia Quarles has broken the school mark for home runs in a season with 11 and is even climbing the Southern Section ranks in that category while several players are closing in on Alvarado’s .507 average she had in 2007.

“I guess it’s kind of a gauge to see where the level of the whole program is playing,” Shawn Quarles said. “I don’t take much stock into it. I think the bottom line is on getting the job done and believing in bringing home a league title. I’ll trade in all of the numbers for a league title. That’s what we want to bring back to the program.”