Last year, the Nipomo and Atascadero high softball teams won outright league titles.
This year, both are off to hot starts again and return key players.
When watching Nipomo’s team this year, start by taking notice of senior Courtney Cuzick.
The crafty right-hander in the pitching circle keeps players guessing with pitches that zig, zag and duck their way to the plate — often into the catcher’s mitt after a swing and a miss.
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Cuzick — headed to play collegiately at Pennsylvania next year —was a Tribune all-county first team selection last year with a 0.79 ERA and an 18-8 record while batting .487 with three home runs and 21 RBI.
“Courtney is going to give us an opportunity to win every game,” Nipomo coach Matt Paradis said. “She commits to every pitch. And with the defense and hitting gelling, we’re much more of a cohesive unit this year. Not many teams can say that this early in the season.”
Cuzick opened this season with a complete-game shutout win in which she changed speeds masterfully in a three-hitter against Arroyo Grande. She figures to pitch most of her team’s innings this year.
“I work out with a personal trainer and I’m trying to get as strong as I can,” Cuzick said. “My goal is always to keep the hitter off-balance.”
Along with Cuzick, Nipomo returns four Tribune all-county selections in third baseman Ashley Ruiz, shortstop Gianna Abatti, catcher Candace Fryckman, and right fielder Saundra Renner.
While Nipomo has the upper hand to repeat in the Los Padres League, the PAC 7 could be a tight race.
“There are a lot of good teams in the league this year and on any given day, anybody can beat anybody,” San Luis Obispo coach Mike Lee said.
The Tigers have 10 returners and they’re off to a hot start, winning their first five contests, after a 9-13 record last year as they try and unseat Atascadero atop the PAC 7
“Our focus is getting to the CIF (Southern Section) playoffs and to compete for the league championship,” Lee said. “It has been four years since we made it to the CIF playoffs, so we’re striving hard to get back.”
The Tigers are led by standout pitcher Andrea Reynolds, who will play at UC Davis next year. Another standout is shortstop Erica Chandler, who was 5 for 9 with four RBI in her first three games this season.
“Erica was a big contributor to a turnaround season in girls basketball for us this winter,” Lee said. “We expect a tremendous season from Erica defensively and offensively. We’re fortunate to have her back as the glue to the infield up the middle.”
Reigning champ Atascadero brings back senior shortstop MacKenzie Messina, an all-county second team selection at catcher last year who hit .489 with four home runs and 30 RBI.
The Greyhounds graduated Tribune all-county player of the year Jessie Hufstetler, who was 20-4 on the mound and hit .506.
But Atascadero coach Darin Traverso has been pleased with junior pitchers Kaala Wood and Alese Dominguez thus far.
The combo gave up only one run in the Greyhounds’ first three games, all victories.
“This is a really fun team because we have a mix of solid returners and freshmen in Kaila Herzig, Sally Bowles and Jessie Featherstone, who will help us this year and build for the future,” Traverso said.
Another county team hoping to challenge for the PAC 7 title is Arroyo Grande, which finished third last year and was 18-10 overall.
New coach John Welch said team captain Jordan Robinson is an anchor at third base and he’s looking to use a mix of pitchers, including freshman Bailey Killough, junior Dominique Henderson, and sophomore Rebekah Hernandez.
Robinson has cat-like reflexes at third. And senior Adriana Ranjel is off to a torrid start, batting over .400 in her first few games.
Paso Robles might also contend under fourth-year coach Valerie Reynolds.
The Bearcats finished fourth in the PAC 7 last year and were 13-11 overall. They’re 5-4 so far this season.
Reynolds said a team strength this year is pitching. The Bearcats are using a rotation that includes Jenna Wookey and Jenna Rogers. They’re spelled by Megan Clark.
“We don’t really have a leading lady among those three,” Reynolds said. “All three can throw the ball very well, and we trust them all. None throws in the same way, and that should help us in league because it will give teams different looks.”