Posted on 02 March 2014 by La Habra Journal
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La Habra senior Camille Manzo will play a crucial position this season, taking over at shortstop as Taylor Pierce takes over in the circle this season.
Success is starting to become a tradition for the La Habra softball program, which won a share of its fourth consecutive Freeway League championship and will be in contention to go after another this season.
With seven returning starters and an eight player who gained plenty of playing time, the Lady Highlanders bring a wealth of league and playoff experience after last year’s run to the semifinals in Division 3, a division above where the program was in 2012.
This year, La Habra will be led by four year starters Hope Moreno and Taylor Pierce. Moreno is committed to the University of Texas, El Paso.
“An example for Hope’s leadership is that she will probably play third base in college, but she’s playing second for us because that’s what the team needed,” McCarroll said. “Taylor has waited very patiently for a chance to pitch and this is her time. Their leadership is crucial, they’re demanding, but not bossy, they have a great relationship with the girls and they don’t want to be the senior class that breaks the streak, they want to get to the finals and win CIF.”
Also returning is junior power-hitting first baseman Amanda Akles, who led the Lady Highlanders with nine home runs a season ago and will bat cleanup this season.
Senior Camille Manzo, junior Racquel Manzo and sophomores Frankie Mendoza and Nikki Butler round out the list of returning starters, while returning junior Anela Lopez has also earned plenty of playing time in her two years in the program.
“We have a very experienced ball club, we have 11 returners and a very good freshman class that came in,” McCarroll said. “We’re a veteran team and it comes down to whether we can hit. We only have four seniors, but everyone has played at the highest level of their age group and that’s what gives us the opportunity to have success.”
Part of last year’s success was due in large part to pitcher Vanessa Ciocatto, who compiled a 21-6 record during her senior year before moving on to Delaware State University.
This year, McCarroll is giving the pitching circle to Pierce, who has been a steady relief pitcher for the program, as well as an outfielder and shortstop, over her previous three seasons.
“Last year, we got on a roll and Vanessa kind of carried us,” McCarroll said. “This year, we have Taylor, it’s her turn. She’s hitting the ball really well too, I think she’s going to surprise some people.”
In a shuffle of positions, Camille Manzo will move in from the outfield to play shortstop, as will Racquel Manzo, who moves in to play third base. Akles and Moreno will look to lock down the right side of the infield at first and second base, respectively.
In the outfield, McCarroll has Mendoza controlling center field again this year. The sophomore will be joined by Anela Lopez and Jayanna Perez, who will be at the top of the batting order.
“I’ve got a lot more depth this year than I have in recent years,” McCarroll said. “I have a lot more flexibility. Our shortstop will have to prove herself, but I think she’ll be okay. Everywhere else, I’m happy with, I think our defense will be one of our strengths.”
But perhaps the biggest player in the field to start this season will be catcher Nikki Butler, who will work with Pierce as well as three others that McCarroll feels confident in sending out if Pierce falls into trouble.
In addition to Pierce, Mendoza earned some experience last year and McCarroll has two incoming freshman who can also pitch, in Janelle Rodriguez and Hannah Johnson. McCarroll said all four have different pitching styles, which could be advantageous when it comes to keeping opponents off balance.
However, injuries have already depleted the pitching staff at the start of the season.
“Frankie hasn’t been able to do anything in a while and she still won’t be ready at the start of the season,” McCarroll said. “One of our freshman pitchers broke her ankle six weeks ago, so we have two pitchers on the Disabled List.”
At the plate, the Lady Highlanders are anticipating better results than last year, which for La Habra’s standards was a down year, offensively.
This season, McCarroll is looking for the team to continue making solid contact and hitting the ball hard.
“I’d like to think that with a year’s experience, we’ll be a little bit stronger, we’ll know what to look for, so our fingers are crossed,” McCarroll said. “If we get people on base, we have some kids that can swing and hit the ball a long way, but we can’t sit and wait for a 2-run home run. We want to put the pressure on opposing teams to respond to us.”
La Habra will be playing another challenging tournament and nonleague schedule, with the Brea Tournament, the Charter Oak Tournament and the Woodbridge Tournament, the latter of which could pit La Habra against county power Marina.
Other nonleague games include a doubleheader against Valencia and a battle against Whittier Christian at home. The Lady Highlanders will also play Yorba Linda on the road.
“Our goal is to prepare for league,” McCarroll said. “I think we have a good balance to prepare for league with that schedule. I’m hoping we lock down defensively and notice pitchers’ tendencies during the early games.”
McCarroll believes that the Freeway League will be as tough as always this season, pinning Sunny Hills as the team’s biggest threat once again. The head coach also believes Troy, Fullerton and Sonora could be in the mix.
La Habra will be tested immediately with road games against Fullerton and Sunny Hills to open up the Freeway League.
“Sunny Hills has a veteran team as well, they always have a good program,” McCarroll said. “I think Fullerton and Troy will be much improved, they’ve been working hard. Sonora is Sonora, they’re going to battle no matter what, Michelle will have them ready to play and if you’re not, they can beat you. I think it will be competitive.”
The Lady Highlanders will start the season this week with the Brea Tournament.
Sonora’s Leandra Jew will lead off again for the Lady Raiders this year and will provide senior leadership for this year’s team.
After two seasons of rebuilding and fine-tuning, Sonora Head Coach Michelle Rodriguez is starting to switch her mentality from hopes to expectations heading into the 2014 season.
From two years ago when the program had no seniors, Rodriguez now has a handful of returners who have two years on varsity and are ready to make a run at the postseason.
“This is by far a more talented and experienced team than we’ve had recently, especially up the middle, which makes a huge difference,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, you need pitching, which I think has become a bit of a lost art in our league. In the past, I’ve been more hopeful and this year I feel it’s more of a realistic goal to compete to get a playoff spot.”
Sonora returns eight players with starting experience, led by returning 1st-team All-League catcher and first baseman Audrey Castro, who turned in a fine offensive season last year.
Other returners include third baseman Katie Amaral, shortstop Chelsea Purcell and second baseman Zoe Juarez, along with starting outfielders Leandra Jew, Madison Gimpl, with Taylor Clark and Brandi Landino also returning with plenty of experience.
“The thing we didn’t lose after last year, was our leadership and that’s not a knock on last year’s seniors,” Rodriguez said. “We have more leaders on the field this year and they’re experienced, whereas in the past we had a couple captains that were timid in terms of being vocal.”
However, with all that experience, Rodriguez has had some trouble with a couple things in the offseason.
The biggest blow came to Castro, who was in a car accident and may have to miss the entire season in the field. Rodriguez is hoping to use her as a designated hitter.
In addition, the flu hit the team hard and as few as four players were at practices in the winter, forcing Rodriguez to cancel a couple winter games.
Despite the inconveniences, Rodriguez is hoping to have most, if not all, of the team ready to go when the team opens up its season this week.
The only positions that don’t return experience are in the circle and at first base. Rodriguez also said she has a few players battling for a right field spot.
In the circle, Rodriguez will start sophomore Sam Casanos, who she said has made big improvements since starting on junior varsity last year. Christina Garcia will be called upon to pitch if Casanos gets in trouble.
“She does well, we’ve come a long way in the fall,” Rodriguez said said of Casanos. “If she has command and control, she won’t blow it by anybody, but we hope she can get ground balls because we have the defense for that this year. At her age, she has a lot of poise, now we’re working with her to keep the ball down and remind her of the kind of defense she has behind her and to let them help her out.”
The head coach will also use freshman Ashley Diaz as a relief pitcher and will keep Diaz at first base when she’s not pitching. Fellow freshman Briana Garcia could fill in at catcher, which would send Gimpl to the outfield.
“We have options, we have a couple freshmen coming in and are really battling for a job, they’ve been a nice surprise,” Rodriguez said. “Having Briana behind the plate and Madi in the outfield makes us stronger defensively.”
The outfield spot, she said, will be interchangeable between three players, depending on who is producing offensively.
The offense could be crucial, as Rodriguez sees the league as one that doesn’t have a clear-cut dominant pitcher this season.
“I believe that the competition within the team makes you better, it keeps you on your toes,” Rodriguez said. “I think it helps to make everyone better. Sometimes the offensive production will dictate who is playing in the field and if the game is low-scoring, then we’ll put in some of our better position players. By definition, we’re not a fast team, so it will come down to our execution, moving people over and driving them in. It’s all about productive outs.”
Last year, the team battled to close contests with both Sunny Hills, in an extra-inning game that Sonora nearly won, and La Habra, but struggled against Troy.
Rodriguez hopes that this year’s squad can challenge and turn some of those close calls into league victories this season.
“I just want to compete, our league is so unpredictable and it’s always been that way,” Rodriguez said. “No one is ever out of it, I just want to make sure we’re in it. A good goal is to earn splits with those teams that swept us last year and we want a top-3 finish.”
To prepare for the Freeway League, the Lady Raiders will battle in the Brea Tournament and the Whittier Tournament, which consists of teams that the Lady Raiders had faced in the past with the Downey Tournament, which is no longer running.
Sonora will also challenge itself with tough nonleague opponents in Bishop Amat, Yorba Linda, Savannah, La Serna, Villa Park and a doubleheader at Capistrano Valley.
“It’s a pretty tough schedule, both of the tournaments that we’re in have some pretty tough teams and that’s what you want to see, but I’m hoping that doesn’t come back to haunt us with our goal of finishing above .500,” Rodriguez said. “We just want to go to the playoffs and I feel it’s really important to get there because that experience is priceless.”
In the Freeway League, Rodriguez wants her team to compete, but the ultimate goal is to finish the season with a record above .500 so that her girls have a chance to experience the postseason even without a top-3 finish in the Freeway League.
“More than anything, it’s important for us to be at least .500 or above, that’s been our problem the last couple years, we haven’t been to that point,” Rodriguez said. “We’re in a tough league with La Habra and Sunny Hills, so it puts a little more importance on the tournament schedule and we need our starters.
The Lady Raiders begin their season with a road matchup against Bishop Amat on Tuesday afternoon.
Whittier Christian catcher Taylor Escobar, along with the rest of the 2014 Lady Heralds, could see a lot of success this season.
Whittier Christian Head Coach Dale Van Duyn said he hasn’t been this excited for a season to start since the program’s last CIF-Championship winning team in 2010.
That year, the team was led by Courtney McGee in the circle. This year, the team has great chemistry, according to Van Duyn, which means all players hold each other accountable.
With that chemistry comes experience, of which the Lady Heralds bring back a lot of heading into the 2014 season.
“If we stay injury free, I think we can do really well this year,” Van Duyn said. “I’m really happy with this group, I like the way they’re working. No matter the result, I’m happy with the group, they’ve put in a ton of work in the offseason. I think we’re going to do well this year and hopefully make another run in CIF.”
Overall, nine players on this year’s squad collected plenty of game experience last year in a season where the Lady Heralds were a game away from winning another Olympic League crown.
Of those players, Katelyn Wagner and Melissa Martene are returning 1st Team All-League selections, while Victoria Ayala and Erica Romo were 2nd Team selections.
Last season, the Lady Heralds’ offense was potent, as three returning players had .450-plus batting averages.
However, the Lady Heralds ran into a problem with pitching and defense, two areas that the team has worked hard on in preparation for this season.
“I think we’re going to give up a couple runs, but I think we can outscore people, that’s where we’re going to benefit,” Van Duyn said. “Defensively, we’re strong, I have a lot of confidence in the defense this year, but it’s the combination. If we’re weak in one area, we can hopefully make up for that.”
This season, Van Duyn is particularly excited about having all four of his infielders return for this season, with Ayala at first base, Romo at second base, Martene at shortstop and sophomore Morgan Ryan at third base.
In the outfield, Van Duyn will have sophomore Cameron McLean in center field and senior captain Celeste Adriano in left field. The eighth-year head coach has a battle going for the right field spot.
“It’s always nice to have the entire infield returning and they have that chemistry,” Van Duyn said. “They’re definitely pushing each other to get better. Cameron is one who’s definitely improved over the off season.”
Behind the plate will be junior captain Taylor Escobar, who Van Duyn said is much improved heading into this season. The junior will handle four different pitchers, including Katelyn Wagner, who will be the starting pitcher for the Lady Heralds for a second consecutive season.
In addition, Van Duyn is particularly excited about freshman pitcher Ally Udell, a changeup pitcher who won’t overpower hitters, but incorporates a lot of movement in her pitches.
Hannah Gabriel will also be in the mix in the circle.
“She wants the ball and that’s what you want, someone who will walk up to you and say ‘I want the ball’,” Van Duyn said of Gabriel. “I see that in both Hannah and Katelyn, they both want to be in the circle.”
Offensively, the head coach is hoping the team will be as potent, if not more so, than it was a season ago when the team hit for a .354 average as a whole.
Those numbers could come in handy when the Lady Heralds play Maranatha and Valley Christian, the two teams Van Duyn sees as the team’s biggest competition for an Olympic League crown this year.
In addition, he also said he wasn’t sure about Village Christian as that program has a new coaching staff this year and he wouldn’t rule out Heritage Christian’s ability to take some league wins as well.
“Hopefully we don’t have the same situation as last year, the girls don’t want to give it away again,” Van Duyn said. “Maranatha will be strong and Valley Christian picked up a couple kids. I think those two will be extremely competitive with us for a league title.”
To prepare for the upcoming season, Van Duyn had the girls run through a five-week conditioning program, designed to help with the team’s speed and overall athleticism.
During that five-week period, the head coach said the girls’ attitude about the program adds to his excitement for the upcoming year.
“When you condition kids, most kids would groan after a while, but I never had that once from any of the girls,” Van Duyn said. “They want it, the attitude is there. I’m having a fun time coaching this group. I think the maturity is coming around and they have a lot of pride.”
In nonleague play, the Lady Heralds will challenge themselves with the San Dimas Tournament and the Ontario Christian Tournament, as well as single games against La Habra, La Serna, California and Gahr.
“We start with La Canada and they are loaded, I think if we can hang with them, we’ve got everything it takes to get the job done,” Van Duyn said. “I’m actually excited about it, hopefully the weather permits it. If we play teams in higher divisions, then we’re preparing ourselves for league.”
Whittier Christian will get a challenge immediately when it opens the season against La Canada in the San Dimas Tournament, Monday night at 7:15 p.m. at the San Dimas Sports Complex.