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Foothill League softball preview: It’s cluttered near the top

Valencia looks to take back title, but the competition is as tight as ever

Posted: April 10, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 10, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Valencia senior pitcher Carly Mortensen is one of the big reasons the Vikings could return to the top of the Foothill League after finishing third a year ago.

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The always-difficult Foothill League looks to be as tight as ever this season, with nearly every team in the Santa Clarita Valley boasting top-flight talent both in the circle and in the batter’s box.

Needless to say, there are no shortages of storylines to go around.

There’s Valencia, which had its run of 10 straight Foothill League titles snapped by Saugus last season. Led by pitcher Carly Mortensen, the 2012 Vikings are primed to make a run at dethroning Saugus.

Speaking of the Centurions, the defending champions will look to duplicate their run with a group of largely new faces after graduating 12 players.

West Ranch has the balanced team to make a run at the school’s first Foothill League title this season, and Hart has shown it might be the best hitting team in the league.

Across the valley, Canyon looks to be the dark horse of the bunch, with a talented pitcher in Hailey Bottino and as feared a hitter as any in the league in Courtney Ziese.

And while Golden Valley doesn’t look to be poised for a title run, no one will look past the Grizzlies on the diamond this season.

It’s going to be as wild a ride as the Foothill League has seen in quite some time.

Saugus

The defending Foothill League champions feature mostly new faces around the diamond, but returning pitcher Alanna Layton and catcher Karlee Bickford have willed the team to a successful preseason.

Saugus sits at 11-3 entering league play, and the Centurions shined at the Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Ariz., finishing fourth.

The losses to graduation were plentiful, though, including Jenna Kelly, Kimmie Lockhart, Randi Jossett, Sara Shier, Ashley Butera, Kate Karppenin and Abby Linn.

Kelly was the league Player of the Year last season, and the new faces have had to step up in a hurry to fill the void.

With Bickford and Layton at the core, players such as Breea Bergara, Alyssa Rodriguez and Rachel Shotzbarger have been relied on this season.

Layton might not carry the same reputation into the season as other pitchers around the league, but her preseason has put her on the map — both in the circle and in the box.

Layton has a 1.20 ERA in 52 1/3 innings pitched and is hitting .513 with 15 RBIs and five home runs.

If Layton can stay consistent and the restocked lineup plays up the level of its predecessors, the Centurions will continue to surprise those who wrote them off for good.

West Ranch

The Wildcats entered the season as a favorite to win their first Foothill League title — and during the preseason, they’ve shown why.

Pitcher Bailey Foster has excelled this year, propelling the Wildcats to a 10-2 record, including winning the Hart varsity tournament in February.

West Ranch lost Alex Gaff off last year’s squad, but has plenty of returning talent to go around.

Julia Lombardi, Janelle Lindvall, Kylie Sorenson, Lauren Lindvall, Haley Hineman and Foster all return to the squad this year, and look to have a tremendous impact on the Wildcats’ title chances this season.

Freshman Keeley Walsh hits in the fifth spot, and head coach Bob Shults recently promoted Miranda Escalara from JV. Shults feels Escalara will be one of the strongest hitters on the team.

Despite the successes in the preseason, though, West Ranch’s two losses stand out as they both came against Foothill League competition — a 4-1 loss to Canyon and a 9-2 loss to Saugus on March 24 at the High Desert Classic.

But Shults isn’t too worried about dropping those contests.

“I saw the girls after the game, they were angry,” he said. “It was kind of a good thing. But you can’t take anything away from those teams. Canyon is a good team. Saugus is a good team. I think this league is tough.”

The biggest thing West Ranch has going for it, though, is its balance.

When Foster is on, she can keep West Ranch in games. And with an offense that has shown explosive ability — the Wildcats have scored at least seven runs in seven of their 12 games — the team is poised to make some noise in the Foothill League.

“Ours as a whole, we have the whole package,” Shults said. “If our pitcher can be consistent ... if she puts the ball in play, I think we probably have the best defense in the league by far. When the kids are playing well, our defense is good, our pitching is above average, our hitting is above average.”

Valencia

After seeing its 10-year Foothill League title streak come to an end last season, Valencia is back and loaded with talent.

Mortensen appears to be the best in the league and is capable of shutting down any lineup on any given day.

During the preseason, Valencia has been working on increasing its offensive production, and if it can be as consistent in the box as Mortensen is in the circle, Valencia will have a great chance at getting back to the top.

The Vikings’ don’t have the power bats of some of their league rivals, though, and will need to rely on consistent hitting throughout the order.

The Vikings took a substantial hit in terms of losses from last season as sophomore second baseman Maddy Jelenicki transferred to Saugus and fellow infielders Bethany Kemp, Caitlin Rooney and Justine Sibthorp graduated.

“We basically lost our entire infield,” said Valencia head coach Donna Lee.

Top returners Karlie Habitz, Kristina Brackpool and Mortensen have helped pick up the slack so far, as have freshman Nicole Joseph and sophomores Wendy Cardinali and Emma Stanley.

“You’re going to go where your leaders take you,” Lee said. “If you have good leaders they’re going to take you to the next level. Every year, a different set of girls steps up. This year, we have girls that are going to keep the team focused on what their goals are.”

And for Valencia, those goals are always the same.

“Our first goal is to win the Foothill League. Our goal every year is to win the CIF title,” Lee said. “It doesn’t matter how many new girls I have, that’s our mission every year.”

Hart

The Indians will enter the league season with one of the most potent offenses in the league. With slugger Tracy Chandless leading a strong lineup that includes returners Juli Strange, Blake Lewis and Jenae Coleman, Hart is averaging 6.37 runs per game.

“We hit the ball better than any team I’ve come across,” said head coach Steve Calendo. “I’d put our offense up there with anybody right now.”

The losses of Brenna Carlson and Emili Escamilla — who pitched  nearly the entire season for Hart last spring — have been difficult to fill.

Filling in for Escamilla in the circle has been Lewis, who pitched sparingly last season and is in her first season as a full-time pitcher.

The senior is 6-1 with a 3.13 ERA and has allowed 17 earned runs on the season. 

And in a year where the league is expected to be as even across the board as it’s been in some time, the Indians’ combination of consistent pitching and stellar offensive production could vault them up the standings this year.

“I think any number of four or five teams can be a force this year,” Calendo said. “I think our team will be really competitive and we’ll be right there with anybody.”

Canyon

Canyon was hit hard by graduation, losing its entire outfield and two pitchers in Jenny Wunderlich, Leanne Hill, Danielle Sullivan, Tina Dahlquist and Taylor Anderson.

But the returning core is equally talented.

Courtney Ziese, a Georgia Tech commit, is one of the most feared hitters in the league, hitting .517 with five home runs in the preseason.

Pitcher Hayley Bottino returns and carries a 1.19 ERA in 66 2/3 innings pitched into the league season.

Bottino also has talent at the plate, and the duo of Bottino and Ziese paired with freshman Lexi Lotito gives Canyon a threatening lineup.

“Everybody has stepped up,” said Canyon head coach Dwain Whalen. “We’ve got one through nine that can hit the ball, so it’s just like any other team in the Foothill League, you have to pick your poison.”

Like West Ranch, Canyon will benefit from a balanced attack as it looks to climb the league standings.

“Our strength is that everything is well-balanced,” Whalen said. “We’re not great at one thing, and weak here. We’re a jack-of-all-trades. We’re well-balanced.”

Golden Valley

The Grizzlies are in the midst of a rebuilding year this season, but so far, the future looks promising.

Golden Valley will miss the graduated Branndi Melero, who is now playing for Auburn University, and will rely on top returners Alyssa Rocha and pitcher Sydney Herrera.

The Grizzlies benefitted from two transfers this season in shortstop Evony Herrera and center fielder Rebecca Herrera, and also newcomer Jabby Thomas.

That core provides a solid foundation for Golden Valley going forward, and that’s likely what this season will be about: building toward the future.

“This year’s all about developing our team,” said Golden Valley head coach Hugo Castillo. “Of course we want to win, but it’s a successful season for us if we develop our team and create team unity.”

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