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2020 SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Gahr remains the elite team in the area while Artesia, Cerritos vie for 605 League top spot again

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

There seems to be no stopping the Gahr High softball team, not just in the San Gabriel Valley League, but the immediate area. While the Lady Gladiators are poised to win another league championship, there may be another battle for the 605 League title for the second straight season between Artesia High and Cerritos High. La Mirada High continues to be the talk of the Suburban League while Valley Christian High is seeking a better campaign than 2019.

Returning players in italics

ARTESIA LADY PIONEERS

17-4 overall last season, 9-1 in the 605 League, tied for first place, lost to Jurupa Hills High 5-0 in the Division 4 first round playoffs

Head coach: Dayna Coleman (seventh season, 55-64)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 50-50

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Brenda Duran, Natalie Luna, Zoey Williams (JR)

Projected lineup:

P-Shelby Hile (JR)/Valerie Joaquin (SR)

C-Alexis Duenas (SO)/Erika Rodriguez-Negrete (JR)

1B-Leilani Pati (SR)/Rodriguez-Negrete

2B-Silvanna Rodriguez (FR)/Natalia Avila (SR)

3B-Charlene Fregoso (SR)

SS-Joaquin

LF-Miriam Estrada (SO)

CF-Camryn Thompson (SR)

RF-Shay Riddell (JR)/Amy Martinez (FR)/Hali Maysonet (SO)

First, the Lady Pioneers had to get to a level where they could compete for the CIF-Southern Section playoffs on a regular basis. But Artesia went a step beyond that last season and claimed a share of the 605 League title. In the process, Artesia posted the school’s best record in over 22 seasons. Of the 17 victories, the Lady Pioneers scored at least 10 runs 11 times, shutout their opponents six times and yielded one run another six times.

“Last season was special because it was our first season in the 605 League and we wanted to set our expectations for Artesia softball,” said Artesia head coach Dayna Coleman. “We were excited to be able to be co-champs and look forward to having an even better year.”

Artesia had a good mixture of talent last season, both young and experienced, and more of the same is on the horizon for the 2020 season. Coleman says junior pitcher Shelby Hile, who went 7-3 last season, splitting time with senior Valerie Joaquin, continues to improve in the circle. She is expected to get more pitching time with Joaquin being the primary shortstop.

The corner positions are solid with the experience of seniors Leilani Pati at first and Charlene Fregoso at third while senior Camryn Thompson continues to patrol the outfield with her tremendous speed. Fregoso has big shoes to fill as she replaces Brenda Duran at third base. The one area of concern in the lineup is replacing the power left behind by the graduated Duran and Natalie Luna.

“No one can ever replace a Brenda Duran or a Natalie Luna,” Coleman said. “They are not only two amazing athletes who helped this program continue to reach new levels, but they are also great leaders on and off the field. We have an amazing senior class this year that will lead us this year.”

The top newcomer will be freshman second baseman Silvanna Rodriguez, whom Coleman says can play any of the other infield positions and could be a force for the next several seasons. She will take over the position left behind by Luna. New to the coaching staff is longtime Artesia Punishers travel softball coach Ed Blank, who was the head coach for Cerritos in 2008.

CERRITOS LADY DONS

13-13 overall last season, 9-1 in the 605 League, tied for first place, lost to Cypress High 12-1 in the Division 2 first round playoffs

Head coach: Kim Ensey (fourth season, 51-25)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 82-48-1

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Key losses: Elise Gibbs, Niki Ibarra

Projected lineup:

P-Erin Gibbs (SO)/Jadyn Nielsen (SO)/Azalea Herrera (JR)

C-Kaitlyn Caneda (SO)/Natalya Mendiola (SO)/Leilani Pina (JR)

1B-Samiya Jones (JR)/Makayla Sur (SO)

2B-Lauren Lejano (JR)/Caneda/Catherine Quibrantar (FR)

3B-Herrera/Quibrantar

SS-Nielsen/Caneda/Lejano

LF-Alexa Diaz (JR)/Sarah Duarte (SR)/Camille Lara (FR)/Quibrantar

CF-Essence Gibbs (SR)

RF-Diaz/Duarte/Lara/Quibrantar

Despite having a relatively young team, Cerritos managed to win its third straight league title and fifth in the last six seasons. The program has been one of the best in the immediate area and always plays a tough, competitive non-league schedule, which is why the Lady Dons ended last season with a .500 record. This season, the Lady Dons will be young again, but much more experienced and will have just two returning seniors.

“It is truly a blessing that we have such a positive and winning culture throughout our school,” said Cerritos head coach Kim Ensey. “The support our program receives from our athletic department and administration shows through our play and success.”

Although the Lady Dons were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs at home, Ensey was still proud of the accomplishments and the journey to prepare for the postseason. She added that sometimes you draw the future CIF champions in the first round.

As far as this season, sophomore Erin Gibbs will once again be the main pitcher as she was last season when she picked up all but four decisions. Sophomore shortstop Jadyn Nielsen is one of the best shortstops, not just in the area, but that the program has ever seen. Her release of the ball once it hits the glove is one to see. Junior first baseman Samiya Jones is the big hitter in the lineup and she and sophomore first baseman Makayla Sur will split time at that position as well as be the designated player. Senior center fielder Essence Gibbs is one of the top two in the league at her position.

“We have been able to make some program improvements, including the reinstatement of our junior varsity program,” Ensey said. “The captains and I feel it is important for C-High softball to grow as one single team as opposed to two separate teams.”

Freshman infielder Catherine Quibrantar and freshman outfielder Camille Lara are the lone ninth graders and Ensey says they will be important role players offensively and defensively. In addition, Ensey added that junior second baseman Lauren Lejano and sophomore catcher Kaitlyn Caneda are versatile utility players who will be key to the team’s success and will be full-time starters playing multiple positions based on the needs of the team.

GAHR LADY GLADIATORS

22-6 overall last season, 10-0 in the San Gabriel Valley League, first place, lost to Great Oak High 12-4 in the Division 1 semifinals

Head coach: Rey Sanchez (second season, 22-6)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 120-27-2

Last time missed the playoffs: 2013

Key losses: Irene Dorado, Shasiel Fregoso, Jazmine Hill, Gisele Tapia

Projected lineup:

P-Ashley Benavides (JR)/Taylor Stephens (JR)/Skylar Sanchez (JR)/Valerie Alvarez (JR)

C-Grace Rivera (JR)/Malia Luna (SR)/Breanna Lucero (JR)/Mailani Magdaleno (JR)/Alvarez

1B-Johanna Rodriguez (SR)/Maya Cisneros (JR)/Amanda Ta’amu (SO)

2B-Mikayla Huskey (SO)/Natalie Samano (JR)

3B-Hayley Olivas (FR)/Luna/Ta’amu

SS-Stephens

LF-Kristalyn Romulo (JR)/Sydni Jones (SR)/Luna/Skylar Sanchez/Sophia Magcale (FR)/Hailey Sanchez (FR)

CF-Romulo/Jones/Luna/Skylar Sanchez/Magcale/Hailey Sanchez

RF-Romulo/Jones/Luna/Skylar Sanchez/Magcale/Hailey Sanchez

Gahr doesn’t have to worry about finding a place on the Southern California map because the program is doing quite fine and has been for some time. The Lady Gladiators have won six straight San Gabriel Valley League titles and have had five straight seasons of at least 20 victories. Despite all that, the program has been unable to win a CIF-Southern Section divisional title and has made only one appearance in a title game. Still, this is one of the premier softball programs around, having gone to the semifinals twice in the past five seasons and the quarterfinals once in the past four seasons and three times since 2007.

“The program has definitely established itself as one of the top programs in the area,” said Gahr head coach Rey Sanchez. “With that being said, it requires an approach where everyone must commit to chasing excellence day in and day out. When facing a quality program such as ours, opponents always seem to raise their level of play.”

The second-year coach went on to say that they will have strong leadership from the three seniors-outfielder Sydni Jones, who can play any of the three outfield positions, first baseman Johanna Rodriguez and catcher and third baseman Malia Luna.

Heading into last season, there was a big uncertainty with the pitching staff. However, junior Ashley Benavides, who went 3-2 last season, is slated to be the main starter. Junior Skylar Sanchez, who has missed the past year and a half with two separate knee surgeries, should see some time in the circle and in the outfield. 

“She is definitely hungry to get back to playing consistently,” Rey Sanchez said. “She will have to maintain a high-level approach in practice and in training to try to break a very talented lineup.”

Junior shortstop Taylor Stephens and outfielder Kristalyn Romulo are the best in the San Gabriel Valley League at their positions and among the best in the area. Stephens will be a valuable backup in the circle to Benavides after being absent from that position the past two years. Freshman third baseman Hayley Olivas and junior catcher and pitcher Valerie Alvarez, a transfer from Bellflower High, will make immediate impacts.

“Being that we have been to the CIF finals and semifinals in the last two years, we have approached our daily work with a higher level of intensity and attention to detail,” Rey Sanchez said. “We have established an emphasis on the subtleties that commonly get overlooked in the flow of the game or from one game to the next. We stress throwing strikes, playing catch and pressuring our opponents while on offense. If we do, we know we will be in every game which gives us the opportunity to win many games.”

JOHN GLENN LADY EAGLES

3-13 overall last season, 1-9 in the 605 League, tied for fifth place

Head coach: Larry Leal (second season, 3-13)
Team’s record previous five seasons: 31-74

Last time made the playoffs: 1990

Key loss: Dalia Morones

Projected lineup:

P-Gabriela Ortega (SO)

C-Zoey Williams (JR)

1B-Miranda Chaidez (SR)

2B-Veena Phanthumchinda

3B-Joanna Rivera

SS-Kaylani Moncada (FR)

LF-Jasmin Avalos

CF-Daniela Barron

RF-Sarah Casillas (JR)

It figures to be another long season for John Glenn High, which has not placed higher than fifth place in the Suburban League or the 605 League in over two decades. The program has gone through 15 straight losing seasons and 19 out of the last 20 seasons. On top of that, it was a struggle just to get enough players to field a team for the 2020 season.

“As a first-time high school coach, the [2019] season was tough,” said head coach Larry Leal. “A lack of commitment [and] a lack of desire to play the game from about 70 percent of the players is something I couldn’t understand. As a coach, you want all your players to be a part of a team of dedicated, committed, hard-working students and we just didn’t have that.”

Maybe the biggest addition to the team comes in the coaching area where Leal brings aboard Melissa Garcia, who has played collegiate softball and knows what it takes to get to the next level.

The Lady Eagles will have to replace an outstanding player in Dalia Morones, who had been the heart and soul of the team the past few seasons. Freshman Kaylani Moncada will take her spot at shortstop and Leal thinks she will fill that void very well and is a player to keep an eye on for the next four seasons. Sophomore Gabriela Ortega returns as pitcher while junior Zoey Williams, a transfer from Artesia, should complement Ortega as the team’s new catcher.

LA MIRADA LADY MATADORS

25-6-1 overall last season, 9-0 in the Suburban League, first place, lost to Roosevelt High 5-2 in the Division 2 quarterfinals

Head coach: Brent Tuttle (fifth season, 88-39-2)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 102-55-2

Key losses: Kayla Gutierrez, Maya Martinez, Djhane Valido

Projected lineup:

P-Halyne Gonzalez (JR)/Veronica Valadez (JR)/Aleyna Urbina (SO)

C-Leilani Melendez (SR)

1B-Savannah Adams (JR)

2B-Dominique Ford (JR)

3B-Josie Dipillo (JR)

SS-Lauren Hutchings (JR)

LF-Astrid Arevalo (SR)

CF-Alexa Sams (JR)

RF-Lilliana Orozco (SR)

La Mirada has always had one of the strongest high school softball programs in Southern California and the 2020 season will be no different for the Lady Matadors. Head coach Brent Tuttle has another experienced squad that is led by senior catcher Leilani Melendez, a University of Utah commit, and junior first baseman Savannah Adams, who has committed to attend the University of Central Florida. Junior Alyssa Campbell will be the designated player and Tuttle has tagged her as one of the team’s most improved players, along with junior center fielder Alexa Sams, who recently committed to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“We play one of the toughest non-league schedules in Southern California,” Tuttle said. “We play at least four games against teams that made the CIF finals last year. We also travel to Bullhead, AZ and may see some of the best teams in the country.”

Tuttle added that the team is looking for another successful season with a chance to repeat as Suburban League champions. After that, look for another deep run in the playoffs.

VALLEY CHRISTIAN LADY DEFENDERS

7-11 overall last season, 1-7 in the Olympic League, tied for fourth place

Head coach: Nichole McGahey (fifth season, 26-57-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 39-71-1

Last time made the playoffs: 2018

Key losses: Alexandria Burgess-Allen, Morgan McGahey, Kyla Nunez-O’Leary

Projected lineup:

P-Caitlyn Azevedo (SR)

C-Quinn Livesay (JR)

1B-Angelina Pool (SR)

2B-Natalie Tonche

3B-Cjelsea Azevedo (SO)

SS-Kate Van Kampen (SR)

LF-Gemma Bulthuis (SR)Meghan Patterson/Itzel Ramirez/Monet Ruiz

CF-Madison Morgan/Keiara Harvey (SO)

RF-Gladdianne Nagao (SO)/Kennyetta Coulter/Piper Estrem

Valley Christian High has alternated playoff appearances in each of the four seasons that Nichole McGahey has been the school’s head coach. This is the season the McGahey gets back to the postseason for the third time in her five seasons and the 10thin the past 12 seasons for the program. V.C. returns a lot of experience and a lot of talent to make a strong push for one of the top three positions in the Olympic League.

“It’s always disappointing to have a losing season, but softball is about more than the wins and losses for us as a varsity team,” McGahey said. “We always want to see growth, team building and support as well as educational excellence. We excelled in all those areas. We come back stronger this year by having our injured players healed up and ready to go and we will continue to work hard.”

She added that last season, the team learned how to keep going when an injury inflicts the team, and they learned how to stand tall under pressure. They also learned how to come around the team members who were thrown into new positions for the first time.

One of those injured players is junior catcher Quinn Livesay and will make an excellent batterymate for senior pitcher Caitlyn Azevedo. Senior shortstop Kate Van Kampen returns to her leadership role while the team also has some promising freshmen.

“The coaches and I are looking forward to a great season,” McGahey said. “We are loving what we see already and have made great strides with our girls. We look forward to competing at our highest level.”

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