Senior Katie Wood moves from the outfield to replace Sarah Osborn at second base, and junior Brianna Simpson switches from the outfield to third base, replacing Jackie Zapeda. The outfield is anchored by the returning centerfielder, senior Malena Padilla.
Much of the Falcons’ success depends on the right arm of sophomore pitcher Madison Williams, who with sophomore catcher Niki Kaleailii gives the Falcons a young but experienced battery to build around. Williams is the third in line of star pitchers her family has produced, following older sisters Amanda and Hannah.
“Madison is going to have to step up,” said Jonas of his star pitcher. “She’s going to have to be better than she was last year – and she was pretty good last year. But she’ll have to carry more of the burden. Last year we played to support her.”
Jonas might be concerned about the Falcons’ youth, but believes the Falcons’ speed should give them a chance to manufacture runs. Conversely, since his best power hitters are gap hitters, he doesn’t assume Freedom will hit a lot of home runs.
Despite the Falcons’ recent success, Jonas doesn’t label his team as league favorites. He confers that title on Heritage, and only marginally less on Antioch. Patriots head coach Ron Rivers doesn’t quite agree with that assessment.
“I can’t really say that Freedom doesn’t have the edge. They have done it for so long. Until someone beats them and knocks them off, that’s who the favorite is,” said Rivers. Despite that, he does believe his team is equipped to make another deep run: “I think we have a good shot. We have a lot of good girls that are actually working harder than they were last year.”
According to Rivers, a tough preseason schedule will help prepare the Patriots for a tough league. Heritage will lose only two seniors from last season’s NCS semifinal team. Those two players, however, are the starting centerfielder and shortstop, leaving the team with uncertainty at two important positions.
Despite that, things look promising for the Patriots, which return four all-league players, including starting pitcher Lisa Rodrigues. Also returning is sophomore first baseman Ali Ramirez, who hit cleanup as a freshman. Junior utility player Marissa Ortiz and sophomore catcher Malia Rivers are other returning players expected to help spark the Patriot attack.
Heritage’s primary rivals last season were Freedom, which ended its season in the semi-finals, and Antioch, whose season was ended by Heritage in the previous round.
Including the playoffs, the Panthers played the Patriots four times last season, the most one-sided game being a 2-0 Antioch victory. The Panthers’ new coach, Brook Russo, takes over a strong team that returns its entire infield and battery.
The Panthers’ most important returning player might be pitcher Paris Imholz, who signed a letter of intent to Bowling Green State in the fall. Another college-bound player who figures to be a key to Antioch’s success third baseman Stephanie Mathias, bound for Weber State. Imholz will throw to senior catcher Shannon West. Another important cog in the Panthers’ season will be their second baseman, junior Nicollette Redfearn.
Despite identifying a young and inexperienced outfield as his team’s greatest question mark, Russo feels that his team, along with Freedom and Heritage, will compete for the league title: “We’re looking pretty good,” he said. “We have a lot of good returners and a veteran on the mound. But Heritage and Freedom both have returning players, too. So it will be tough.”
Based on last season’s results and this season’s returning players, conventional wisdom suggests that Freedom, Heritage and Antioch will be the top three teams again. Coaches of all three teams, however, expect challenges from the non-favorites in the league. In 2010, Freedom was the one of the BVAL’s top three teams who didn’t record a single loss to a bottom three team.
Deer Valley earned a surprising and convincing 7-3 late-season victory over Heritage that essentially knocked the Patriots out of league title contention. The Wolverines were also buoyed by two close losses to Freedom that showed that on any given day, they can play with anyone. Deer Valley also will be a more experienced group, as last year’s squad also fielded only three seniors.
Liberty enjoyed similar success to the Wolverines last season. A late-season 3-2 win at Antioch, coupled with the Wolverines’ win over Heritage, all but handed another league title to the Falcons. The Lions were a little less fortunate in the other games, however, going only 4-11. Included in that was a 7-5 loss to Pittsburg in the game immediately following the win against the Panthers. Liberty’s loss to the Pirates gave Pittsburg its only league win.
Like Deer Valley, the Lions graduated only three players from last season. A key returning is junior Victoria Bradshaw, the Lions’ primary starting pitcher in 2010 and their leadoff hitter, batting at a .300 clip.
“I think it would be good for the league for a fourth team to step up, said Rivers. “I think Freedom has been helped in the playoffs by playing in a tough league, so I think a fourth playoff team would help us all.”
The Pirates are trying to bounce back from a season where they went 3-15 with a 1-13 record against BVAL opponents.