Cal-Hi Sports Preseason Softball Top 20

Pitcher Sarah Shadinger (far right) is one of many top players returning at Camarillo, which won 2011 CIF Southern Section Div. II title. Mark Tennis/ESPNHS

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Close call to start with Archbishop Mitty just in front of Los Alamitos. With a state packed so tightly with top teams, however, it’s never surprising if an unheralded squad in the preseason breaks through.

It doesn’t take much for a very good high school softball team to get to an elite level among the best in California.

If a team has an ace pitcher and many top position players returning from the previous season, just getting that one extra bat in the lineup or that one great defensive player up the middle can be the difference between an early exit in the playoffs and going all the way to win a major section championship.

It’s also takes very little in the form of an injury or the loss of a key player, such as a table-setting leadoff hitter, to cause an elite team to begin losing 2-1 games instead of winning them.

This is why California softball preseason rankings in particular are so hard to do. Yes, we do check more than 100 teams to evaluate lost starters, returning standouts and strength of schedule. But in the end, there are razor-thin differences between many of these teams and not much separates No. 1 from No. 20 and No. 21 from No. 40.

Here are the complete preseason top 20 state rankings (listed with last year’s records)

1. Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) 28-3

The Monarchs have been near the top of the state softball rankings for many years, including a No. 1 finish in the state and nation in 2009, and should have one of their best teams this spring. Cal-bound pitcher-hitter Vanessa Alvarez, who had a 0.80 ERA and had .333 batting average, is among many returning starters. Super sophomore Jazmyn Jackson, one of the top prospects nationally in her class and almost the State Freshman of the Year, also is back. She hit .485 and drove in 32 runs. Another top talent is junior infielder Kiersten Nordin. She was an all-league sophomore in 2011 with a .333 batting average.

2. Los Alamitos 27-4-1

Almost everyone is back for the Griffins, who were among the top 20 ranked teams in the POWERADE FAB 50 for almost all of last season. The CIF Southern Section Division I semifinalists have a lineup that should include sophomore pitcher Andie Formby (25-4, 1.69 ERA), second base Megan Geer (.366, 23 RBIs) and junior third base Alexandria Finie (.344, 24 RBIs). Coach Rob Weil has several other younger standouts, including sophomores Infinity Laufou and Rachel Sellers, which means it’s a team that still may be a year away from being No. 1 in the state.

3. Etiwanda 23-4

Coach David Masucci’s club will be centered around the multiple talents of 2011 State Junior of the Year Melissa Taukieaho. The University of Washington recruit ripped 12 homers with 50 RBIs last season and went 17-4 with a 1.30 ERA. There is a solid group of returnees to go with Taukieaho as well. Shortstop Delaney Spaulding is headed to UCLA and has experience with the USA Softball Junior Women’s National Team.

4. Santiago (Corona) 28-5

The defending CIF Southern Section Division I champs and the 2011 State Team of the Year definitely could be higher in the preseason rankings because it’s a group that welcomes back junior pitcher Erica Romero. She’s the one who threw a four-hitter in last year’s final game. A giant hole in the middle of the lineup, though, is catcher Lauren Sweet, the Ms. Softball State Player of the Year. In addition to Romero, coach John Perez also will likely count on others such as pitcher/first base Erin Rodriguez, outfielder Jordan Mowatt and outfielder Brittany Abacherli.

5. Sheldon (Sacramento) 27-6

For the first time in seven years, there are no Hendersons on hand to help lead the Huskies as both Danielle (Class of 2011) and Jolene (Class of 2009) are now at Cal. Don’t feel too bad for coach Mary Jo Truesdale, though, as she has seven returning starters from a squad that won the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I crown. Arizona State-bound pitcher Alexis Cooper along with catcher Meshalon Moore (UC Santa Barbara) and outfielder Danielle Wiltz (Nevada) are the best of Sheldon’s returnees.

6. Pacifica (Garden Grove) 24-3

Almost everybody is back for the Mariners, who evoked memories of when they had the leading program in the state for part of the 1990s with a solid season in 2011. Sophomore pitcher Kaylee Carlson (21-2, 0.78 ERA) and junior first base Rebecca Lee, an Ohio State commit, are among the top returnees.

7. Chino Hills 25-6

The Huskies were projected to be an elite team before the arrival of freshman Tannon Snow, who may put them over the top in the CIFSS Division III playoffs. Snow, younger sister of UCLA starter Talee Snow, has already committed to Arizona State and will play outfield for the Chino Hills varsity this season. Coach Mike Southworth loves three-year all-league pitcher Nikki Innamorato, but sophomore Patricia Parks will have to get a lot of innings as well. She’s regarded as a pitcher with big-time potential and has committed to national power Arizona. Other Chino Hills players to watch include shortstop Nikki Girard (Arizona State), catcher Paige Gumz (Fresno State) and third base Garie Blando (UNLV).

8. Norco 21-7

The Cougars will be a threat to Corona Santiago in the Big VIII League and could be one of the top teams in the Southern Section with just two players lost from last year’s roster. Senior pitcher Emily Lockman, who has signed with Nebraska, headlines the group of experienced players. Junior shortstop Kylie Reed in the team’s other big-time talent. She has committed to Cal.

9. Bonita Vista (Chula Vista) 34-2

Senior pitcher Jennifer Hartman is back for the Barons, which gives them a good shot to be the best team in the San Diego Section this spring. Other than a stunning playoff loss from last year, they were the section’s best in 2011. Hartman ended 25-2 and had a 1.58 ERA. Also back are senior first base Celinna Cosio (.457, 53 RBIs) and senior third base Anissa Pinedo (.419, 38 RBIs). Not having all-state outfielder Kayla Jordan around, though, is going to hurt.

10. Marina (Huntington Beach) 20-7-1

Sophomore pitcher Tera Blanco returns after garnering Cal-Hi Sports State Freshman of the Year honors a year ago. Blanco had a magnificent 0.08 ERA and will be re-joined in the Vikings’ lineup by senior infielder Sandy Simmons, who has signed with LSU. Marina beat No. 6 Pacifica in last year’s CIF Southern Section Div. I playoffs and could have been higher in the preseason. The Mariners just have a tiny bit more returning talent.

11. El Diamante (Visalia) 28-5

Last season's CIF Central Section Division I champions should be among the favorites to recapture the title not only this year but next with the return of junior Sierra Hyland. Leading the way as a sophomore, Hyland went 25-4 in the circle with a 1.10 ERA while also leading the team in runs batted in with 33. The Miners return several other key players, including junior catcher Katy McJunkin (.471, 27 RBIs) and junior second baseman Stevi Johnson (.366, 24 RBIs).

12. Camarillo 26-7

With just three seniors on their CIFSS Division II championship team last season, the Scorpions will be looking to repeat after capturing their first section title since 1991. Senior Sarah Shadinger knocked in 21 runs but it was in the circle where she was counted on the most as she went 23-5 with a 1.47 ERA and 256 strikeouts in 176 innings pitched. Senior Bianca Noriega also returns after hitting a team-best .433 while knocking in 29 runs.

13. Amador Valley (Pleasanton) 22-5

Coach Julie Marshall’s team is the favorite for the East Bay and in the CIF North Coast Section with just three seniors graduated from last season. Sophomore pitcher Johanna Grauer is headed to Arizona State, but Marshall also can turn to reigning East Bay Player of the Year Krista Williams for innings in the circle. Williams, who is perhaps even better as a leadoff-hitting outfielder, has signed with Northwestern. All-East Bay second base Nicole Borchard, all-league catcher Victoria Molina and all-league sophomore shortstop Ashley Lotoszynski are all among the returnees as well.

14. Johansen (Modesto) 27-4

Junior infielder Gabrielle Maurice was the Cal-Hi Sports State Sophomore of the Year after batting .506 and going 23-for-23 on steal attempts. The UCLA commit isn’t the only top player returning for the Vikings, either. Pitcher Elizabeth Perez (21-3, 1.17 ERA) and third base Jazmine Pedrotti (.476, 35 RBIs) also figure to be outstanding this season.

15. Simi Valley 23-3

The Pioneers’ season ended in heartbreak last year with a second-round loss in the CIFSS Division I playoffs despite not allowing a hit in the loss to Riverside Poly. Going 14-0 in Marmonte League play, the pitching staff was led by graduated Sophia Perez, but senior Lauren Soles returns (8-1, 1.04 ERA). The offense last season was a balanced effort except for one and that is returning senior Jenn Soria ,who led the team in batting average (.500), RBIs (42) and homers (nine).

16. Carson 27-3

If the Colts find a pitcher to replace Crystal Maas, they’ll not only easily repeat as the L.A. City Section champion but will be an elite team with national credentials. They have perhaps the state’s top 1-2 hitting duo in infielder Darian Tautalafua, the South Bay Daily Breeze Player of the Year with 15 homers, 47 RBIs and a .554 average. Catcher Brittany Moeai is equally potent with 10 homers, 65 RBIs and a .580 average from last season. Tautalafua (Long Beach State) and Moeai (UCLA) are both bound for major colleges as well. Tautalafua’s younger sister, Brianne, a freshman, is also a major talent. She’s already committed to UCLA and we all know the Bruins don’t make those offers to just anyone.

17. Valencia 23-7

A third-place finish in the Foothill League and a CIFSS Division I quarterfinal loss to El Modena of Orange wasn't quite as successful as coach Donna Lee's Vikings would have wanted after starting the season ranked seventh in the state, but they should be a tough team to beat once again this season. Part of the reason Valencia still has high is senior pitcher Carly Mortensen, who will be headed to college right down the street from our Stockton office at the University of the Pacific. Also back is sophomore Maddy Jelenicki, who as a freshman verbally committed to UCLA before hitting .500 with eight home runs and 32 runs batted in.

18. Sierra (Manteca) 24-2

It was a standout season for coach Nick Olmo and the Timberwolves as they went from a 10-loss season in 2010 to one with just two losses and a CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship. Sophomore Allison Walljasper couldn't have had a much better freshman year as she was named second-team All-State after going 18-1 with a 0.41 ERA striking out 213 batters in 120 innings while also hitting .515. Junior Sommer Wilson led the team last season with a .533 batting average, 27 RBIs and four home runs.

19. San Benito (Hollister) 29-1

The Haybalers will be going for their seventh straight CIF Central Coast Section Division I title. Many regulars from last year are gone, such as all-state Jessica Vest and pitcher Page Miguel. Junior Megan Sabbatini, however, who also pitched well last season, is back. Junior second baseman Samantha Puentes (.597, 26 RBIs) is another strong returning player.

20. Canyon (Anaheim) 23-8

The Comanches had a great postseason run last year as they made the CIFSS Division I finals after finishing in third-place in the Century League behind Esperanza and El Modena with a squad that had very few seniors. Key to how well they will do will be filling the shoes of one of those seniors as graduated pitching ace Cheyanne Tarango pitched every inning. Senior infielder Lauren Young hit .441 with a team-best 38 RBIs while another hot hitter should be sophomore infielder Taylor Swearingen (8 HRs, 28 RBIs).

On the Bubble:

Edison (Huntington Beach) 24-7, El Modena (Orange) 20-8-1, James Logan (Union City) 23-4, Oaks Christian (Westlake Village) 30-5, Ridgeview (Bakersfield) 30-5, Rodriguez (Fairfield) 28-3, South Hills (Covina) 21-8.

Note: Stockton office assistant editor Paul Muyskens contributed to this report.

Corrections or comments? Email Mark.Tennis@espn.com.