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Pair of Artesia High Graduates, Another Senior-to-Be, Have Etched Footprints in Softball Program

From left to right, Vanessa Soto, Alea Medina, and Maya Torress have helped Artesia High stay near the top of the 605 League. They are also key components of the (Lakewood) Southern California Athletics-Rivera/Blanck travel team. PHOTO BY LOREN KOPFF.

July 3, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

It may sound like the law firm of Medina, Soto and Torres, but instead, those three softball players have kept the Artesia High program strong for the past four seasons. Now, as Vanessa Torres and Maya Torres set their eyes on collegiate softball next month, Alea Medina hopes to be the leader next spring in her senior season of a program that has been building since 2019.

Behind the growth of these players has been head coach Ed Blanck, who after four successful seasons, recently announced his retirement from not only the school, but his travel softball team. Medina, Soto and Torres have each batted no worse than .364 the past two seasons at Artesia and last summer they were the top three hitters for their travel team, the (Lakewood) Southern California Athletics-Rivera/Blanck.

“It’s been a blessing to tell you, because the talents that you get to come into high school are pretty rare,” said Blanck. “Then when you get good talent like this, it’s an absolute pleasure. With those three girls, they have been a great help in teaching [the other players]. It was awesome.”

Torres has been pulling double duty for the Pioneers as she has been a strength in the circle as one of the top pitchers of the 605 League in addition to swinging a hot bat. As a junior, Torres batted .446, had 33 hits, 23 runs batted in, scored 16 runs and was walked 13 times. This past season, she was second on the team with a .448 average, scored 29 times, had 25 RBI and smacked a team-high seven home runs. In the circle, she went 9-6 for a team that finished 13-8-1, the third straight season the Pioneers won at least 10 games. Torres was also the league’s Most Valuable Pitcher.

Last summer, Torres led the So Cal Athletics with a .405 average, had 17 hits and was walked 10 times and in 15 games played this summer, she is batting .393 with 11 hits, three of which for extra bases, has nine RBI and just as many runs scored and has drawn 11 walks. In 28 at-bats, she has struck out just once.

“Maya, on her pitching, needed to work harder,” said Blanck. “And then I needed her to concentrate on every pitch. That was hard to do sometimes in the 605 League because some of the teams aren’t as strong. And she can play anywhere on the infield.”

Torres, who will be playing at Whittier College, said her time at Artesia has been ‘pretty fun’ and she had an idea of what to expect and what it was going to be like after watching her older sister, Charlene Fregoso, don the red and black from 2017-2020.

“I tried to work as hard as I can to be able to help my high school team,” said Torres. “I wanted us to get far in [the playoffs this past season] and make a name for ourselves. We didn’t exactly get far, but we definitely made a name for ourselves these past couple of years.”

Soto batted .449 as a junior with 35 hits, 27 RBI, and 23 runs but led the Pioneers with 27 RBI this past season. She also scored 28 runs, which was second on the team and was second last summer with a .357 average and scored 10 runs. Soto was a 605 League first team member this past season.

“I’ve gone through a lot with her as far as high school, getting her eligible to play,” said Blanck. “Then this year…wow, she finally matured and got everything going. She played behind the plate and at third base. Hitting-wise, she led in RBI’s and had very solid hits. With her, it was like, ‘aww, I didn’t get a good hit’. But I would tell her she had two RBI. I worked with her on that aspect of the game, which is going to…I’m telling you, [Orange Coast Community College], where she’s going to go, is going to be so happy when they get her.”

“Memorable, to say the least,” said Soto of her time at Artesia. “I think the memories of the team have been the greatest part of my whole softball experience. I loved our roster and all the girls…we just played together so nicely. We knew how to communicate well because we had that communication on and off the field. It was great.”

Medina, who admitted she wished she had one more year with Soto and Torres, shined as a sophomore when she batted .474, had 36 hits, scored 41 runs, was walked 18 times and stole 22 bases. This past season, she was third on the team with a .414 average and 34 runs. Her patience at the plate was nearly spot on as she drew 24 walks and stole another 22 bases. She too was a 605 League first team member.

“Alea didn’t have any confidence in herself,” Blanck recalls. “I kept giving her positive feedback. It took me a year to get her on my travel ball team because she didn’t think she was good enough for my travel ball team. I kept telling her, ‘yes, you’re going to be my starting outfielder’. Finally, it took a lot of talking and then she came out and as you can tell, she has that positive attitude and it’s getting stronger and stronger now that she’s [going to be] a senior. Her aggressiveness at bat and stealing bases is awesome.”

“We’ve been knowing this was going to happen,” said Medina of the others graduating last month. “I do feel like I’m being left behind, but we’ve had good times together. I’m just making sure not to take any of these weekends for granted and just looking forward to the rest of the [summer] with them.

“It’s been amazing,” she continued on her Artesia career. “I grew up playing with these girls, so we all clicked immediately. The bond was there from the beginning.”

In 15 games this summer, Medina is batting a solid .406 with 13 hits, has scored 15 runs and has drawn 10 walks. She leads the So Cal Athletics with eight walks. Blanck said he saw a growth and maturity when the three came to Artesia in the fall of 2020 (2021 for Medina).

“As a high school coach, I gave them roles of responsibility and held them accountable for who they were responsible for,” said Blanck. “So, like Vanessa, she’s a catcher and she worked with the catchers. In that aspect, teaching the junior varsity catchers how to block, how to throw. Maya, I used as a pitcher to show the j.v. girls how to pitch and the other girls on varsity who came in.”

As far as Torres being held accountable for the pitchers early in her high school career, she said it wasn’t too much of a surprise.

“I’ve done that before, and it was pretty nice being able to help my teammates,” said Torres. “I knew I was up for the expectation because I had already known some of the pitchers.”

“At first, I never interpreted myself as being a leader,” said Soto. “I knew I was one of the ones who was able to pump up the girls when needed and I knew that I was that person who could get their energy up.”

He added that Medina was accountable for the outfielders and taught them how to throw the ball and how to run angles.

“It honestly made me feel good and it just made feel like leader on the team,” said Medina. “Being as young as I was, it helped me with my confidence a lot. My freshman year, I was playing on a different travel ball team, the USA Athletics, and I wasn’t playing. I was on the bench every single game. So, going into my freshman year, I had nothing because I wasn’t playing.

“It was a rough start for me, but throughout the season, it got a lot easier because Coach Ed knew the type of player I was,” she continued. “He just helped me build up that confidence again. He made me the player I am now.”

If having Medina, Soto and Torres on the So Cal Athletics wasn’t enough, two more recent Artesia graduates are also on the team. Irma Gonzalez, who batted .363, scored 25 runs and had 18 RBI and Melissa Mendoza, who was fourth in average (.393), had 18 RBI and scored 18 runs, have been vital for the Pioneers and the So Cal Athletics. Torres, who has known Gonzalez for a long time, said she knew all five of them would be at the same high school, but as far as being teammates for the So Cal Athletics, that was kind of a coincidence, but not exactly a surprise, in her words.

“Irma was another one that didn’t have confidence in herself,” said Blanck. “I had to keep reminding her how good she was. When she finally started believing it, then those RBI’s would come up. She batted second in my lineup [at Artesia] and she was part of Alea scoring. I could sacrifice her because she was also fast. If I could get those two on, I know I’m going to get a run.”

But still, Medina, Soto and Torres have been the backbone of the program and have been the most prolific trio the Pioneers have seen in at least a quarter of a century.

“I’ve been playing with Vanessa since the sixth grade, so we’ve been together for awhile now,” said Torres. “And Alea, I’ve known since my second [recreation] ball team. So, we’ve already had that bond coming into high school and I knew they were both reliable players that I could count on. If I needed them, they would be there, not just for me, but for the entire team.”

“I was not expecting to come to [the So Cal Athletics] coming into high school,” said Medina. “But I think knowing that I had girls from high school coming to this team made it a lot easier of a decision, and I don’t regret that decision. I love that we brought more girls to the team.”

Blanck, who is in his 70s, leaves Artesia with a 45-35-1 record and of the 10 head coaches the program has had since 1998, he is the only one with a winning record. It should be noted that in the past 27 seasons, the Pioneers have had five seasons in which they were above .500. His 45 victories are second behind ex-Artesia great Dayna Coleman (Feenstra), who compiled a 59-67 mark over seven seasons.

The reason Blanck is leaving Artesia is because he retired from his profession five years ago to coach the Pioneers and remain in softball. He had also been involved with the Artesia Punishers travel organization for many years before joining forces with Tim Rivera, who was also involved with the Punishers.

“I want to start enjoying my retirement, not that coaching high school was not fun,” he chuckled. “I had a great time coaching it; I wanted to experience that. When I retired, I wanted to coach high school. Well, I did it and now I’m 71 and I want to enjoy my RV.”

“Coach Ed had been asking me since my freshman year to join the So Cal Athletics,” Soto recalled. “I was still stuck with my other [travel] team, the (Buena Park) Orange County Strikeforce and I was little hesitant because he had an 18-Under team, and I didn’t know if I was ready for that. But I got to play with the girls and honestly, I don’t regret any decisions I’ve made because this team is great and the coaches are great.”

Blanck admitted he almost stayed one more season because of Medina. But, his daughter, who played for the Punishers in the early 2000s, is moving to South Carolina and needs her father to help her with the cross-country move. Blanck also has four grandchildren out that way, so as he put it, ‘it’s a perfect time where I’m going to go help with my family’.

“They are the best kids I’ve ever coached,” said Blanck. “When great athletes like them respect you and listen to you and pay attention and do what you ask, what can you expect? These girls are going to be achievers in college and they’re going to be awesome.”

The So Cal Athletics are hoping to land a spot in the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championships later this month. Blanck is also hoping to get Medina signed to a college, which she has already been looked at by several institutions.

Now, with most of the core group having graduated and Blanck retiring from coaching, it’s up to Medina and soon to be senior Kaleyse Foster to be the focal point of the Pioneers so they can pass the torch off to next season’s underclassmen.

“Me and Kaleyse had said that if my sister [assistant coach and former Artesia standout Alyssa Medina] wasn’t coaching, that we weren’t going to play softball anymore because Coach Ed is an amazing coach,” said Medina. “He built up that program. It’s hard, but we made the decision that we’re going to keep playing; we’re going to finish it out because you just can’t stop. We want to keep the program going, keep building it up and make those [underclassmen] keep the program going.”