HS softball preview, 2019: Senior talent giving way to strong crop of freshmen

Watsonville senior pitcher Jessica Rodriguez works during a non-league game against Monte Vista Christian. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Some of the top high school softball players in South Santa Cruz County are getting ready to sing their swan songs, and a strong group of underclassmen — mostly consisting of freshmen — is primed to fill their large shoes.

Aptos, St. Francis, Monte Vista Christian and Watsonville this spring were flooded with young stars that are expected to aid all four teams in their quest for a league title.

Girls from local travel softball programs like Central Coast Athletics, California Suncats and Salinas Storm were sprinkled throughout the Pajaro Valley like a seasoning on a juicy steak — adding a new punch to an already impressive package.

Aaliyah Gomez, Ada Neu, Alicia Mendez, Mariah Montalvo and Rylee Gomez might be unrecognizable names at the moment, but that won’t last for long. Those five — and a few more — are expected to cement their status as the stars of tomorrow.

“All of [the coaches] got a nice surprise this year,” said Aptos fifth-year coach Phil Rojas. “There are some freshmen out there that can really play.”

Some sophomores, juniors and seniors, too.

Here is a look at every local softball team:

APTOS

The Mariners got a little taste of success last season and entered this spring with two big goals: (1) defend their Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title and (2) make a deep run in the Central Coast Section playoffs.

Aptos has never advanced past the CCS semifinal round. But with the talent, leadership and accountability on this year’s roster, Rojas feels like the sky is the limit this spring.

“This group has really worked hard and dedicated itself to getting better,” Rojas said. “This team will go as far as it wants to go.”

Aptos last season finished 14-10 overall, and won the SCCAL title for the first time since 2011. The Mariners graduated six seniors, but returned six from last year’s team, including their top two hitters, junior shortstop Shea Garcia and senior first baseman Martina Churchill, and senior pitcher Julia Cano.

Seniors Vanessa Segura and Dezaray Angulo and sophomore Aliyah Garland also return with hopes of improving on last year’s first round exit from the CCS Division II playoffs.

“All the seniors, juniors and sophomores lead the team,” said Segura, who starts in the outfield. “It’s not just one person. We all show leadership throughout practice and the games. That makes our team stronger.”

Also strengthening the team: the addition of Neu.

The freshman pitcher has given Rojas another workhorse to pair with Cano, who last year posted a 2.29 earned run average. Neu, who can throw a fastball, changeup, screwball, curve and a rise, flashed her prowess with a 17-strikeout performance against Pacific Grove, but has managed to keep a level head about her instant success at the varsity level.

“I still have a long way to go,” said Neu, who also bats in the leadoff spot. “I just want to work my butt off and represent my team in the right way.”

That attitude, Garcia said, has been the most impressive aspect of the rookie’s game.

“She plays the role of underclassman really well,” said Garcia, who is verbally committed to NCAA Division I Portland State. “She works really hard and everybody loves to be around her. She’s definitely talented, but she’s also easygoing and brings great energy to the team.”

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Shortstop Shea Garcia was a star for the Aptos Mariners as a sophomore last season. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Aptos will pair the Cano-Neu pitching duo with a strong lineup anchored by Garcia and Churchill. Garcia last season hit a team-high .458 with 33 RBI, four doubles and five homers en route to All-SCCAL First Team recognition. Churchill, too, earned All-SCCAL First Team honors after hitting .447 with 18 RBI, seven doubles and three home runs.

Junior Zoe Kinsella-Montes, sophomore Teresa Hurtado-Tyne, Neu, Cano and Segura will also provide offense.

“Last year’s success definitely elevated our expectations a lot,” Churchill said. “We’re excited for league.”

Aptos is scheduled to play last year’s SCCAL runner-up San Lorenzo Valley in Felton to open its league season on Tuesday. The Cougars are expected to challenge the Mariners for the league crown once again with reining league M.V.P. Zoe Mendez leading the way. With St. Francis now in the four-tiered Pacific Coast Athletic League, the SCCAL could be a two-horse race between Aptos and S.L.V.

“Last year, winning the title, coming together and doing that, felt so amazing,” Cano said. “We want to feel that again.”

M.V.C.

Shelley Chavez is in her second year as head coach, and the Mustangs are looking for big improvements after a 6-13-1 finish last season.

Seven return from last year’s squad, including seniors Samantha Baer, Haley Hollingsworth and Holly Finn, who missed all of last year because of injury. Junior Jessica Enriquez and sophomores Hannah Hollingsworth, Alexa Keller and Isabella Vessey are also back after spending their freshman season learning how tough the varsity game can be.

Eight new vivacious freshmen will go through the same process this spring — the program will not field a junior varsity team, as several prospective players decided to play lacrosse instead.

“Playing varsity as a freshman, being 13 and playing 18-year-old young women, it’s tough — it wakes you up quickly,” Chavez said. “I’m looking for these girls to bring Monte Vista Christian back.”

The Mustangs have not won a league title since 1998, which also marked the end of a special four-year run for the program in which it earned a berth to the CCS playoffs every year and advanced to the D-III championship game.

The last time M.V.C. made the postseason this year’s seniors were in seventh grade.

“I’ve told myself every year that we’re going to put up a [banner] on that wall,” Baer said. “We haven’t been able to get it yet, but this year we really have our team set up to put a [banner] on that wall.”

A significant portion of the team’s success will fall on Baer’s shoulders. She is heading into her fourth varsity season and second as the Mustangs’ starting pitcher. She is armed with a two-seam fastball and a changeup in the circle, and carries a big bat in the box — she hit .508 with 22 RBI, seven doubles and seven homers last season.

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Monte Vista Christian senior pitcher Samantha Baer (5) is expected to be one of the top throwers in the PCAL-Cypress division. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

Other than Finn (third base), Hollingsworth (first base) and Enriquez (centerfield), Baer will be surrounded with youth.

Vessey, Keller and Hannah Hollingsworth — Haley’s younger sister — lead the five-player sophomore class, which also features Briana Fowler and Hannah Steigman. And Montalvo, Kristina Bravo, Sophia Verdegaal and Amaya Chong-Vargas power a promising young core of freshmen that Chavez believes will lead the program to great heights in the near future.

“[The freshmen are] very competitive and their talent is very needed on this team,” said Enriquez, who joins outfielder Kendall McPhillips as the team’s lone juniors.

The Mustangs will compete in the PCAL Cypress division, which features Alisal, Seaside, Soledad, St. Francis and Stevenson.

N.M.C.

The Condors have not won a league title since 1995, but longtime coach Aaron Daniels believes his team has a chance to be competitive in the PCAL-Mission, which will also feature Carmel, Alvarez, Monterey, North Salinas and Pacific Grove.

“It will be a tough season for us this year,” Daniels wrote in an email, “but we’re up for the challenge.”

N.M.C. graduated four seniors from last year’s team, including Nicole Garcia and Michaela Galli, whom combined for 14 doubles, a triple and four homers to help the Condors finish 12-10 overall and 7-5 in Monterey Bay League Pacific action.

Nine return from last spring, five of which are seniors. Kali Eaton, the team’s top pitcher from last season, is back, and four-year varsity starters Debora Guzman and Malorie Ramirez also return.

Both Guzman (.467) and Ramirez (.420) hit over .400 last season. They also combined for nine doubles, four triples and nine homers. The former will split time at catcher and outfielder, and the latter plays the hot corner.

Sophomore infielder Bekah Bueno and freshmen Joslyn Holmes and Dejalei Visesio will lead the program into the future, according to Daniels, who has five sophomores, including pitchers Jillian Hensley and Chyelee Eaton, on this year’s team.

“I am hoping for the team to play hard, be competitive, have fun and get better each week,” Daniels wrote.

PAJARO VALLEY

The Grizzlies are in the PCAL Santa Lucia division — the bottom tier of the league — and coach Eddie Bugayong has a strong belief the move will help his team produce one of the winningest seasons in program history.

Pajaro Valley has never won more than four games, according to the records on MaxPreps, and the Grizzlies had not won a league game since 2010 before opening PCAL-SL action with a win over Anzar.

They will also clash with Gonzales, Greenfield, Trinity Christian, Marina, King City and York in league play.

“The girls are excited — I think we all are,” said Bugayong, now in his fourth season. “We’re in the right league now.”

Pajaro Valley carries 14 players on its roster, and a pair of sisters, Lluvia and Veronica Alvarez and twins Eveny and Evelyn Pulido, will try to carry this year’s group to success.

Lluvia, a senior, is the team’s starting catcher and cleanup hitter, and Veronica, a freshman, will be Bugayong’s go-to pitcher. The Pulido twins, both juniors, enter their third season as the team’s starting outfielders.

Senior third baseman and leadoff hitter Sapphire Gonzales will also be a big contributor for the Grizzlies.

“We’ve been slowly improving and building over the years,” Bugayong said. “I think we took a little bit of a step back last season, but we’re back on track.”

ST. FRANCIS

The Sharks are fresh off a record-setting season, and the expectations have never been higher for coach Art Doten’s squad.

Pitcher Shelby Velasco and third baseman Anna Noto — both All-SCCAL honorees last year — are gone, but St. Francis returns seven players from last year’s team, including seniors Maia Madrigal and Lena Ciandro.

St. Francis also reloaded with a quintet of freshmen: Natalya Soto, Alicia Mendez, Sabrina Noto, Elizabeth Nino and Aaliyah Gomez.

“The freshmen, they’re going to hold their weight,” said Doten, who is in his third season with the program.

All five are expected to play, and Mendez and Gomez will start at pitcher and shortstop, respectively.

Mendez throws a zippy fastball and can also toss a curve, changeup and screw ball. Gomez is a sure glove in the infield with an arm that can make every throw. Both can hammer the ball.

“I think we’re going to surprise people,” Mendez said.

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St. Francis freshman pitcher Alicia Mendez has stepped in as the Sharks’ starting pitcher this spring. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

The Sharks surprised plenty last season by finishing third in the SCCAL and setting program records for most overall wins (14) and league wins (9) in a single season. Still St. Francis was on the outside looking in at the start of the CCS playoffs, missing the postseason by a few points.

“We were all sad that we didn’t make it, but this year our goal is to not have to worry about it,” Ciandro said. “We want to make [playoffs].”

Ciandro, who is in her fourth season as the team’s starting catcher, was a big reason for the Sharks’ success last spring. The diminutive baller led the team in nearly every statistical offensive category, including multi-hit games (11), en route to a All-SCCAL Second Team selection.

Juniors Ariana Azevedo (second base), Claire Cagnacci (first base) and Grace Kovacs (outfield) and sophomore Audrey Hernandez (centerfield) also return to the starting lineup with Ciandro and Madrigal (outfield).

“All the freshmen bring a lot to the team but so does everyone else,” Hernandez said. “Every individual on the team brings something good. We have fun out here.”

WATSONVILLE

An historic era of softball at Watsonville will come to an end after this spring. But the Wildcatz don’t believe their dominant play has to end with it.

Batterymates Jessica Rodriguez and Juliana Wilson are in their senior seasons, and will bid adieu to the Central Coast to play NCAA D-I softball at UNLV and UCF, respectively, following graduation.

“It’s going by so quick,” Wilson said. “We’re out of here in like four or five months.”

Rodriguez, a pitcher, and Wilson, a catcher, would like to add a couple more titles to their already impressive high school careers. Over the last three seasons, the duo has earned numerous all-league honors, a pair of league titles and a CCS D-I crown. But last year’s heartbreaking loss in the CCS Open Division semifinals to eventual champion St. Francis-Mountain View still eats away at both of them.

The six other returning players haven’t been able to shake the loss either.

“We still think about it — it’s still there,” said sophomore Maya Guerrero. “We know we can be better. You think back to that day, and you say, ‘this is what we did wrong, what we could’ve done differently.’ When you’re thinking about it, it makes you work harder and harder. It makes you focus… We know we need to work even harder to get to that spot again, and I believe that we can get there.”

Watsonville will have to do it without half of last year’s starting infield. Shortstop Savanah Quintana-Martin and third baseman Zaira Pena are gone, and their speed and range on defense will be sorely missed. Sophomore Anastacia Alba will fill in at shortstop, and Guerrero will start at third base beside her.

Alba (.476) and Guerrero (.412) each hit over .400 and combined for 53 RBI, 13 doubles, five triples and 13 home runs as freshmen. Their offense will undoubtedly transfer over from last spring but they will carry more responsibility on defense this season, as both played primarily in the outfield for last year’s team, which finished with a 23-4 overall record and was ranked 47th in the state by MaxPreps.

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Watsonville's sophomore infielder Anastacia Alba is part of a young, talented core that will lead the Wildcatz into the future. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

“Our young girls are going to have to play beyond their years,” said Watsonville fifth-year coach Scott Wilson.

Like last season, Watsonville’s senior class is slim. Starting first baseman Emily Ornelas is back for her fourth varsity season, and Wilson was pleasantly surprised when speedy senior outfielder Ashley Haduca decided to return to the diamond.

Outfielder Jazmyn Martinez — a returning starter — is the team’s lone junior.

Alba, Guerrero and returning starting second baseman Maliyah Sandin spearhead a six-player sophomore class, which also includes Irie Lerma, Daisy Ortiz and Julianna Hernandez.

That strong sophomore group will lead the program into the future along with three stellar freshman: Rylee Gomez, Yaviana Prado and Marissa Martinez.

Gomez and Prado are stud infielders and Martinez can pitch and play first base.

“It’s a little nerve-racking because we do have a lot of underclassmen, but I feel like they’re capable of being just as good as how we were in the past — maybe even better,” Juliana Wilson said. “[The underclassmen] know the game and they can pick things up really quick. It just takes time.”

Watsonville will have to hope most of its growing pains are out of the way by Tuesday, as it travels to Salinas for its PCAL-Gabilan opener. The Wildcatz will also see Notre Dame-Salinas, Gilroy, Christopher, Santa Catalina and San Benito in the new powerhouse league.

•••

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Juliana_Wilson_Watsonville_Softball_Mug_2019

Juliana Wilson (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Catcher/infielder

Why she’ll be great >> The definition of a cleanup hitter, Wilson has 111 RBI, 37 doubles and 23 home runs over the last three seasons

Jessica_Rodriguez_Watsonville_Softball_Mug_2019

Jessica Rodriguez (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Pitcher

Why she’ll be great >> Named the Pitcher of the Year in the MBL-G each of the last two seasons, Rodriguez is a well-known commodity

Maya_Guerrero_Watsonville_Softball_mug_2019

Maya Guerrero (So.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Infielder

Why she’ll be great >> Cracked the starting lineup as a freshman last spring and is expected to continue her strong play this season

Anastacia_Alba_Watsonville_Softball_mug_2019

Anastacia Alba (So.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Infielder

Why she’ll be great >> Alba, who hit nine homers and tallied 36 RBI last spring, will make the move to shortstop this season

Shea_Garcia_Aptos_Softball_mug_2019

Shea Garcia (Jr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Infielder

Why she’ll be great >> Was in the league M.V.P. discussion last season, and is again expected to be one of the top players in the SCCAL this spring

Ada_neu_Aptos_Softball_mug_2019

Ada Neu (Fr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Pitcher/Outfielder

Why she’ll be great >> Gives the Mariners another star pitcher with a distinct style in the circle

Julia_cano_Aptos_Softball_mug_2019

Julia Cano (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Pitcher/Infielder

Why she’ll be great >> Posted a 2.29 earned run average in the circle last season

Vanessa_Segura_Aptos_Softball_Mug_2019

Vanessa Segura (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Outfielder

Why she’ll be great >> Segura was a nice surprise last spring, and has gotten off to a strong start this season 

Jessica_Enriquez_MVC_Softball_mug_2019

Jessica Enriquez (Jr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Outfielder

Why she’ll be great >> A speedy outfielder who gives the Mustangs a reliable glove and strong leadership

Sam_Baer_MVC_Softball_Mug_2019

Samantha Baer (Sr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Pitcher

Why she’ll be great >> Returns for her fourth varsity season as the Mustangs’ top pitcher and best hitter

Mariah_Montalvo_MVC_Softball_Mug_2019

Mariah Montalvo (Fr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Catcher

Why she’ll be great >> Wise beyond years, Montalvo has established a strong connection with Baer through the early season

Alicia_Mendez_SF_Softball_mug_2019

Alicia Mendez (Fr.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Pitcher

Why she’ll be great >> Big and strong for a freshman, Mendez will try to fill the big shoes left by Shelby Velasco

Lena_Ciandro_SF_Softball_mug_2019

Lena Ciandro (Sr.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Catcher

Why she’ll be great >> Enters her fourth season as the Sharks’ starting catcher

Audrey_hernandez_SF_Softball_mug_2019

Audrey Hernandez (So.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Outfielder

Why she’ll be great >> Steps back in as the team’s starting center fielder, and brings speed around the bags on offense

Editor's Note: This article will publish in the March 15 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.

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