By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal
Unfinished business. That’s exactly what the Lady Highlanders softball team has collectively had on their minds since a crushing loss in the 2016 CIF semifinals derailed La Habra’s championship bid and snapped their school record 26-game winning streak.
Despite ending on a sour note, the Lady Highlanders finished with a 29-2 record and have plenty to be optimistic about in 2017. The girls finished a perfect 10-0 in league and will be returning all but three starting position players.
First and foremost, they return a pair of aces in the circle. Seniors Hannah Johnson and Janelle Rodriguez might be the best pitching tandem in the county. Both girls are coming off back-to-back dominant seasons. According to head coach Steve Harrington, Rodriguez is back at full strength after suffering through a shoulder injury late last season.
La Habra will also have All-CIF outfielder Kira Cauley back to spark the offense again. Cauley is a legitimate five-tool talent. In addition, seniors Billie Jean Wells, Alyssa Palacios and Alyssa Rios are all returning starters and major contributors from last season.
La Habra will have some big shoes to fill at a couple key positions though.
Shortstop Frankie Mendoza and catcher Nikki Butler both moved on to play collegiately. Last year’s captains were heart of the order batters and equally valuable on the defensive end. That said, replacing their leadership could prove to be the most difficult hurdle this year.
Although the Lady Highlanders lost a few key starters from a year ago, they are still far and away the favorite to win another Freeway League title.
Sonora (13-11, 6-4) finished in second, while Sunny Hills (16-10, 5-5) and Fullerton (18-12, 5-5) were right behind.
The Raiders are lead by senior captain Claudia Kim, who pitches and plays middle-infield for Sonora.
Harrington is excited about having a lot of returning players and believes a couple girls stepping up from the junior varsity team, as well as a couple freshman will make significant contributions right away.
“A beautiful surprise this year, has been Alexis Riley,” Harrington said.
Riley is a senior, but played junior varsity last season. Harrington admitted her talent has always been there, but praised her on her maturity during the offseason.
La Habra’s success during Harrington’s first season at the helm didn’t go unnoticed. The Lady Highlanders were bumped up to a Division 1 team this year for the first time in school history.
“I don’t care what division we’re in, I’ve been in that division,” Harrington said. “I’ve been down that road many times, heck last year’s team beat the Division 1 champion.”
Harrington added a gauntlet of tough out of league games to the schedule this year to better prepare the girls for the rigors of CIF. After getting his first full offseason with his team, Harrington believes they have what it takes to beat anybody regardless of division.
“This is a tight knit group,” he concluded, “and in my experience, the tighter the group the better the team.