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2024 SOFTBALL PREVIEW – Gap in 605 League shrinking for top spot while Gahr, La Mirada ready for tougher seasons

February 22, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Cerritos High has won six straight league titles, the last four in the 605 League, but that might come to an end in 2024. The emergence of Artesia High, John Glenn High and Pioneer High has made the league as tight as it’s ever been. Gahr High and La Mirada High, loaded with talent, battle in what figures to be a tougher Gateway League season while Valley Christian High hopes to build off last season’s light schedule.

Returning players in italics

ARTESIA PIONEERS

16-8 overall last season, 6-4 in the 605 League, third place, lost to J.W. North High 4-0 in the Division 6 semifinal playoffs.

Head coach: Ed Blanck (fourth season, 32-27)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 53-34

Last time missed the playoffs: 2018

Division 5

Key losses: Rebecca Gooden (JR), Jazzlyn Jara (SR), Amy Martinez, Silvanna Rodriguez, Allisiah Valenzuela (SR)

Projected lineup:

P-Maya Torres (SR)/Alea Medina (JR)

C-Arianna Franco (SR)/Vanessa Soto (SR)

1B-Jazmine Anguiano (SR)/Kaleyse Foster (JR)

2B-Victoria Lopez (SO)/Paulina Nava (FR)

3B-Franco/Soto

SS-Irma Gonzalez (SR)

LF-Lopez/Nava/Celeste Cabrera (JR)/Alessandra Russo (JR)/Brendy Sarni (JR)

CF-Medina

RF-Cabrera/Lopez/Nava/Russo/Sarni

Once considered a laughingstock in the former Suburban League, Artesia has made a name for itself in the 605 League, advancing to the CIF-Southern Section divisional semifinals for the first time in school history. The Pioneers have finished in third place the past three seasons, but now, this might be the season where Artesia can call itself league champions.

“We came in third in league and then all of a sudden in [the playoffs}, the girls started playing together, and they were all starting to gel, and we started winning,” said head coach Ed Blanck.

Blanck admitted he wasn’t surprised that the Pioneers got bumped up to Division 5 this season but thought his team might be in Division 4 because J.W. North is now in Division 4. The offseason was the same as it had been ever since Blanck took over the program. He had to bring up a lot of freshmen and sophomores from the junior varsity team and they had to learn the fundamentals.

In the circle is senior Maya Torres, whom Blanck says has matured in the way she is attacking each batter and is coming in with more or a positive attitude. There isn’t a true backup to Torres as junior Allisiah Valenzuela decided not to come back. So, junior Alea Medina would be the emergency backup. Artesia will display one of the best catching tandems around in seniors Arianna Franco and Vanessa Soto. They will also alternate at third base.

Junior first baseman Kaleyse Foster is a transfer from Lakewood High and until she is eligible, which won’t be until the second league game, senior Jazmine Anguiano assumes those duties. Medina is the only experienced outfielder and can cover a lot of ground.

“I really have high expectations, but that’s me,” said Blanck. “I always expect high expectations from my girls and I expect them to work hard. As a team, they’re really coming together right now. I know their goal is to beat Cerritos…and if I was going to predict, I would say we would go 1-1 with Cerritos.

 CERRITOS DONS

15-3 overall last season, 10-0 in 605 League, first place, lost to Los Altos High 6-4 in the Division 3 first round playoffs.

Head coach: Todd Denhart (fourth season, 52-8)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 66-27

Last time missed the playoffs: 2008

Division 3

Key losses: Haley Ceron, Rose Guerrero, Camille Lara, Catherine Quibrantar

Projected lineup:

P-Kylee Manibusan (SR)/Danielle Baca (SO)/Ava Ceron (SO)

C-Alianna Calderon (JR)

1B-Natalie Gardea (SR)/Anaya Granflor (JR)

2B-Ceron

3B-Toafaoalii Pua (SR)/Gardea

SS-Michelle Meza (JR)

LF-Megan Wallace (JR)/Manibusan

CF-Presley Hendrix (SR)

RF-Wallace/Micaela Curiel (SR)

For the second straight season, the Dons finished the regular season with 15 wins and for the second straight time, they were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs.     

The Dons have dominated the 605 League since it was formed, winning 39 out of the 40 games played in the circuit. That streak may be in jeopardy this season as the talent level has slipped a bit. On top of that, Cerritos has failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons and nine times out of the last 12 seasons. Only in 2015, 2017 and 2021 have the Dons won a playoff game during that stretch.

“It’s a game of inches,” said head coach Todd Denhart. “In the last couple of years, a couple of inches beat us. I don’t want to say it’s bad luck; I just think it’s unfortunate.”

When looking at the 2024 Cerritos softball team, the first thing that stands out is the roster. There are only a dozen players on varsity and 13 on the junior varsity team. In past seasons the varsity squad has had close to 20 players. And, the roster is even shorter with the loss of junior shortstop Katherine Villegas, who stepped in a pothole and blew out her knee after a recent scrimmage game against North Torrance High. Filling in her shoes will be junior Michelle Meza.

“Three years coming out of Covid, everybody wanted to play, and I think that had a little bit to do with [the numbers],” said Denhart. “Last year we had a few less bodies [and] we’re thin [this season]. We have 25 kids in the program. I had 21 on the roster three years ago on the varsity team. I don’t know what it is. The program here has gone in cycles.”

What Cerritos does have is the returning league most valuable player in senior third baseman Toafaoalii Pua, who most likely will be the first player opponents notice. Besides her, Denhart says there is no standout player and that the team will have to be scrappy. He cites senior first baseman Natilie Gardea as the most improved since the end of last season. She came to Cerritos as a shortstop, which didn’t last long, then moved to the outfield but now, out of necessity, is at first base. Denhart says she will play collegiate softball as an outfielder.

Losing Villegas is a crushing blow to the Dons in terms of another league title. In the past, Cerritos has battled all the adversity, but Denhart say this time, it might be too much to overcome.

“Ed has a solid squad over [at Artesia] and I don’t know what Glenn lost defensively,” said Denhart. “I thought they were fairly young, but they have the kid in the circle and she’s a senior and has been getting better every year. And then, Pioneer is a solid team, too. It’s a coin toss if we make the playoffs this year.”

GAHR GLADIATORS

12-11-2 overall last season, 4-4 in the Gateway League, third place, lost to Norco High 9-5 in the Division 1 first round playoffs.

Head coach: Rey Sanchez (sixth season, 79-34-2)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 79-34-2

Last time missed the playoffs: 2013

Division 2

Key losses: Sophia Magcale, Hayley Olivas, Rya Rivas, Hailey Sanchez

P-Marley Cortez (SR)/Olina Burgueno (SO)/Isabella Gonzalez (FR)

C-Alyssa Aguilar (SR)/Larissa Flores (SR)

1B-Vivian Tavera (SR)/Aguilar/Gonzalez

2B-Flores

3B-Cortez/Tavera

SS-Rio Mendez (SR)/Flores

LF-Malaia Huskey (JR)

CF-Natalia Hill (SR)

RF-Emma Maldonado (JR)

Since 2014, Gahr has ended every season at least six games above .500, including the shortened 2020 Covid season until last season. Moving into the new Gateway League where the Gladiators were introduced to La Mirada made an already challenging schedule even tougher. On top of that, Gahr fell in the first round to the Division 1 finalists and has lost in the first round in two of the last three seasons.

“It was a good year; the year before was a pretty good year for us,” said head coach Rey Sanchez. “We were young; it was my big group of seniors that I have this year. Last year we had expectations, higher expectations for sure because it probably was my most talented position player-skill player team that I have had. We didn’t have the number two pitcher who can really…we had Hailey [Sanchez], but she didn’t have the experience.”

Sanchez added that one of the problems the team faced last season was the chemistry and clashes between the different personalities. This season, the Gladiators will have 18 players with half of them seniors, including the ace of the pitching staff, Marley Cortez. Sophomore Olina Burgueno has experience but is currently sidelined with no timetable of return as of now. However, freshman Isabella Gonzalez, whom Sanchez says will be a difference maker and is not going to pitch like a freshman, will be a solid backup in the circle. He added that she’s not afraid and feels confident giving her the ball.

“Marley is going to do what Marley does,” said Sanchez. “Marley is going to throw strikes and she’s going to hit spots and she’s going to pitch to a lot of weak contact. But Isabella is a little bit more of a power pitcher. They can throw to both sides of the plate as well and she’s only going to get better.”

Sanchez said that of his returning players, the most improved since last season is senior first baseman Vivian Tavera. She started on defense last season but ended up being the flex player. However, she has made strides offensively.

Even though there are close to 20 players on the team, Sanchez said there isn’t much depth. Four of the newcomers played on the junior varsity team last season and outfielder Kaityn Hughes is the other freshman along with Gonzalez. Look for sophomores Alexis Johnson and Abbygail Perez to get some at-bats and whoever of the two can swing the bat will be penciled in as the designated player.

Despite the power of the Gateway League, Gahr has been league champions in seven of the last nine seasons. This season, the Gladiators get bumped down to Division 2, but Sanchez said this season’s team would have been fine in Division 1. Still, he added that there are no slouches in Division 2. But the most important thing about the 2024 Gahr team is the chemistry is better than last season and the players admitted they don’t want a repeat of last season.

“The league is obviously stronger,” said Sanchez. “There is no easy game. Everybody [in league] is tough. When you have La Mirada [and] Mayfair that have joined the three that traditionally have been strong, which are Downey, Warren, and us, it makes for great competition. It prepared us to play against anybody.

“Can we make a run in Division 2,” he continued to ask. “I’m hoping so. I’m hoping that we can put it together and get this motor going in the right direction and I think we’ll be okay.”

JOHN GLENN EAGLES

15-4-1 overall last season, 7-3 in the 605 League, second place, lost to St. Joseph High 9-1 in the Division 6 second round playoffs.

Head coach: Javier Galvez (second season, 15-4-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 43-40-1

Last time missed the playoffs: 2022

Division 5

Key losses: Julia Cole (SR), Beatriz Galvez

Projected lineup: Unknown

After going to the quarterfinals in 2021, Glenn missed the playoffs the next season before bouncing back under first-year head coach Javier Galvez. The Eagles have gone 40-23-1 over the past three seasons, the best three-year mark in over 25 seasons.

Glenn has built its team since going to the quarterfinals and now, those ladies are seniors, including catcher Sienna Contreras, infielders Anais Perez and Kristy Rodriquez and center fielder Diana Bravo. Junior pitcher Carissa Galvan pitched all but three innings last season.

LA MIRADA MATADORES

18-9 overall last season, 7-1 in the Gateway League, first place, lost to Pacifica High 6-5 in eight innings in the Division 1 first round playoffs. Lost to Torrance High 16-2 in the CIF Southern California Regional first round playoffs.

Head coach: Brent Tuttle (ninth season, 156-67-2)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 93-34-1

Division 1

Key losses: Natalie Craig, Kaitlyn Macias

Projected lineup:

P-Quira Castillo (JR)/Montserrat Reyes-Cardenas (JR)/Alison Ortega (FR)

C-Rebecca Eckart (SR)/Riley Hillard (FR)

1B-Amber Valdez (SR)/Hillard

2B-Alissa Avila (JR)                                               

3B-Angelyna Conde (JR)

SS-Amanda Urbina (JR)

LF-Angelina Ratzlaff (JR)

CF-Angelie Kennedy (JR)

RF-Reese Hillard (FR)

La Mirada, like other Division 1 teams, was primed to make a deep run in the playoffs. What the Matadores didn’t anticipate was blowing a 4-0 first inning lead to Pacifica in the first round of the playoffs. They also didn’t anticipate getting blown out oy Torrance in the Southern California Regionals, but that game also fell on the same day as graduation. Still, La Mirada continues to be one of the premier programs in Southern California and return all but one player.

“The girls…it’s all them, but they competed and it’s a heartbreak to lose two years in a row, really close games to the eventual CIF champion,” said head coach Brent Tuttle. “[The CIF-SS] did it again this year where you only have 24 teams in Division 1. You know you’re going to get a dog fight every time you go out there. It doesn’t matter if it’s first round, second round or whatever.”

This past offseason was different for the Matadores because they didn’t have their home field to practice on. They are still using Glenn’s field for home games until their new digs are completed, maybe in April. In lieu of their normal practices, the team focused on the weight room twice a week, then went across the street to the park to get their hitting in.

The leader in the circle is junior Montserrat Reyes-Cardenas and even though junior Quira Castillo was a solid backup last season, La Mirada is going to freshman Alison Ortega as a backup to Reyes-Cardenas. Tuttle says the 5’9” freshman can pitch in the mid-60s and with her joining the pitching staff, she and Castillo will probably pitch three and four innings each game they toe the rubber.  

One of the top hitters in the area is senior catcher Rebecca Eckart, who is committed to the University of Notre Dame. Waiting in the wings is freshman Riley Hillard, who is the same size as Eckart (5’9”) and squats 265 pounds. Moving from the outfield to replace the graduated Natalie Craig at first base is senior Amber Valdez while another freshman, Megan Avila, could work her way into the lineup. She is the younger sister of Alyssa Avila. Sophomore Danni Lopez is slated to be the designated player for Reyes-Cardenas.

“La Mirada is such a neat area,” said Tuttle. “All our girls are La Mirada girls. There’s nobody coming in from the outside. It’s just a nice, little hotbed of players. For sure there’s a two-year window, and then I’m sure there’s going to be a couple more coming next year. We have another little Avila [coming in next year], so we’ll have three Avila’s; three sisters coming. It’s just a nice, little community where we get these players. The future is bright.”

The Matadores, 3-1 on the season, have already played in the 1st Pitch Challenge on consecutive Saturday’s and will be in the Norco Showcase before going to the Dave Kops Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, AZ. Those tournament games will prepare the Matadores for what figures to be another tough Gateway League where two games separated second place from fourth place and last place Downey High stayed instead of moving to the Mid-Cities League.

“When you’re in a competitive league like we are…we try to pride ourselves to get ready for that,” said Tuttle. “We take pride in working hard to get to league. Our goal is not to be playing our best softball right now. Our goal is to be playing our best softball in the league. And yes, our teams are good, but I think our girls really get up for league.”

NORWALK LANCERS

17-6 overall last season, 10-0 in the Mid-Cities League, first place, lost to Culver City High 1-0 in the Division 3 first round playoffs.

Head coach: Fred Perez (third season, 37-14)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 52-38

Last time missed the playoffs: 2019

Division 4

Key losses: Cerise Cervantes, Sasha Gonzalez, Leilani Juan, Kasarey Lotts, Monique Rivas (JR)

Projected lineup:

P-Jalynn Banda (SR)/Kendall Nakano (SR)/Rachel Cabrerra (FR)

C-Jezrael Acosta (JR)/Diana Avina (JR)

1B-Itzel Hernandez (SR)

2B-Yanelli Vega (JR)/Amarie Encarnacion (SR)/Jaslene Pelayo (SO)

3B-Nayeli Sanchez (SO)/Nakano

SS-Banda/Nakano

LF-Avina

CF-Gabriela Hughes (SO)

RF-Anahi Rodriguez (JR)/Jazmin Jiminez (SO)

After sharing the Suburban League title in 2009 and 2016, Norwalk High went wire to wire in the first season of the Mid-Cities League. However, for the second time in the last three seasons, the Lancers were ousted in the playoffs in the first round. Norwalk won at least 17 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008 and 2009 and is seeking its best three-year stretch since 2007-2009.

“I think it’s just a learning experience,” said head coach Fred Perez of the early playoff exit. “With our team this year, it’s winning those one-run games. It’s been coming down to where we just need to execute in those one-run games. It’s something we’ve been trying to work on during the offseason and preseason.”

When the Suburban Valley Conference was formed, it was set up so the champion of the Mid-Cities League moves up to the Gateway League the next season and the last place team of the Gateway League shifts to the Mid-Cities League. That’s not the case this season as the Lancers remain in the Mid-Cities League. Perez said he wanted to remain where he was, and that Downey wanted to remain in the Gateway League again.

While the Lancers return nine players this season, Perez says the team is very young. A third of those returning players are seniors-pitchers Jaylynn Banda and Kendall Nakano, who will also play shortstop, and first baseman Itzel Hernandez. Banda figures to get most of the work in the circle while Nakano is one of the top hitters in the area as her .704 average and her 57 hits is evidence of that. Those two will be the team captains this season. But Perez still sees the youth as a good thing because the leadership that the Lancers have will funnel down to the younger ones.

“It will start showing on the field to where I can see already where they’re performing defensively and in their at-bats,” said Perez. “But we still have a way to go in a 28-game season.”

Second and third base will be new with sophomore Nayeli Sanchez shifting from center field to play third base while junior right fielder Anahi Rodriguez is the only experienced outfielder.

It’s expected that the Lancers will win the Mid-Cities League again where they scored 167 runs in the 10 games with only Bellflower High and Paramount High scored against them.

“They have enough to win the Mid-Cities League title and the chemistry on the team is really good right now,” said Perez. “We’re going to execute on the field and we’re going to have our bumps. But the one thing I want to make sure we get better in is just winning those close games that we lost last year.”

VALLEY CHRISTIAN DEFENDERS

8-6 overall last season, 5-3 in the Olympic League, tied for second place, lost to Mayfield High 6-4 in the Division 6 second round playoffs.

Head coach: Chet Kingery (third season, 13-22-1)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 27-52-1

Last time missed the playoffs: 2022

Division 5

Key losses: Madison Morgan

Projected lineup:

P-Bella Bulthuis (SR)/Rachel Zhang (FR)

C-Peyton Kingery (SO)/Brianna Ramirez (SO)

1B-Kayla Martin (JR)

2B-Julia Gonzales (SR)

3B-Ramirez/Lydia Dietz (FR)

SS-Britton Brown (JR)

LF-Zoee Barrett (JR)

CF-Choyce Chambers (SO)

RF-Tallulah Ireland (FR)

Not only did V.C. return to the postseason for the first time since 2018, but the Defenders won their first playoff game since 2015. Years of building the program back to where it was over 10 years ago when V.C. went to the quarterfinals twice in a three-season span seem to be paying off. On top of that head coach Chet Kingery guided the Defenders to their first winning season since 2012.

“The culture is changing around Valley for the better,” he said. “These girls are starting to get more dedicated to softball and putting the extra work in as far as extra ground balls, extra fly balls, extra reps in the cage. And as a coach, that’s what you like to see.”

V.C. had a relatively young squad with only one pitcher, senior Bella Bulthuis. Out of caution in not burning her arm out, Kingery didn’t schedule a lot of non-league games. The plan paid off and with the graduation of just one player, V.C. is looking for an even better season.

“We kept Bella as fresh as possible, even though at the end of the season, she did throw a lot of games,” said Kingery. “But I think taking our non-league games all the way down to where we went, I think it kept her legs fresh and her arm fresh and her mind fresh to throw the whole league.”

Kingery says that leadoff hitter and sophomore right fielder Choyce Chambers has improved the most over the offseason. Something that V.C. hasn’t had recently is depth. Against Cerritos in the season-opener, freshman Rachel Zhang pitched the last four innings and everyday third baseman, sophomore Brianna Ramirez, was behind the plate while sophomore Peyton Kingery was recovering from an injury. The Defenders will still be young this season fielding half a dozen freshmen and three sophomores.

Last season, the Defenders tied Village Christian High for second place in the Olympic League, three games behind Whittier Christian High and four games ahead of Heritage Christian High and Maranatha High. Look for Valley to be in the top three once again.

“If we can just compete and the girls play, I think we’ll be just fine to earn a playoff spot,” said Kingery.

WHITNEY WILDCATS

5-10 overall last season, 1-9 in the 605 League, tied for fifth place.

Head coach: Stephanie Machado (third season, 6-24)

Team’s record previous five seasons: 22-41

Last time made the playoffs: 2019

Division 6

Key losses: Bianca Contreras, Julienne Madius (SR)

Projected lineup:

P-Monicka Manni (JR)/Olachi Anyama (SO)

C-Anyama/Ella Nelson (FR)                                               

1B-Alise Garcia (SR)

2B-Kristen Sutton (SR)                              

3B-Mariana Botello (SR)/Madison Velazquez (JR)

SS-Chiugo Anyama (JR)               

LF-Velazquez/Luisa Tuipulotu (SR)

CF-Andrea Victoria (SR)

RF-Tuipulotu/Velazquez/Nelson

All Whitney High head coach Stephanie Machado wanted to do was to increase her win total when she took over the program. After the Wildcats went a combined 1-18 in 2020 and 2021, Machado won once in 2022 and five games last season, including the program’s first league win since 2019. It may be baby steps, but the Wildcats are heading in the right direction.

“I think there was just the adjustment period of a new coach and how I run things or how I want things to happen,” said Machado. “I think for some of them, we had younger kids, and so it was just getting comfortable with themselves. From them going from freshmen to sophomore, naturally, was just maturity happening and kind of not being so nervous in general for themselves.”

As she has done most of her first two seasons, junior pitcher Monicka Manni will get the bulk of the work in the circle. Machado said Manni’s biggest improvement is her maturity. However, she hasn’t been keeping up with her pitching lessons and she hasn’t improved on the technical aspect as much, according to Machado. But her game presence has improved and should give the ‘Cats more victories.

There is a changing of the guard behind the plate where sophomore Olachi Anyama will be catching Manni primarily with freshman Ella Nelson the backup. Last season’s starting catcher, senior Mariana Botello, moves to third base while her backup, junior Chiugo Anyama is the primary shortstop.

Machado’s top expectation once again is to win more games than last season. Already, the Wildcats, who moved up to Division 6, have won their first two games. Machado said she would like to win 75 percent of her non-league games, which are mostly Division 6 and 7 opponents. In league, she said she would like to sweep Oxford Academy and split with one of the other four teams.

“Last year, our goal for a lot of those good [league] teams was not to get mercied in five,” said Machado. “Whether we got mercied in six or seven, we saw that as a success when we were plying someone like Cerritos or Artesia.”