As the cornerstone of a four-year stretch of Nipomo High softball that included a pair of Los Padres League titles and a Tribune County Player of the Year distinction, the graduation of Courtney Cuzick left a considerable void both in the pitching circle as well as the Titans’ dugout.
But with a breadth of talent Nipomo youth leagues have developed over the past few years, coach Matt Paradis still has plenty of potent players at his disposal.
“Nipomo has been building our softball program for eight years, and the word has spread that we’re a program to be reckoned with,” said Paradis, whose team is 28-8 in the LPL over the past three seasons. “We’ve really worked to collaborate with Nipomo youth softball to foster a desire to compete from a young age.”
Now, the varsity program is beginning to reap those rewards.
The Titans, a game behind league champion Cabrillo in last year’s LPL standings, return a trio of four-year starters in third baseman Ashley Ruiz, first baseman Vangie Lopez and left fielder Destiny Fryckman.
Ruiz hit .453 last year with a team-high 20 runs, 17 RBI, seven doubles and two home runs.
Through four games for Nipomo (4-3) this year, she and Lopez had both driven in four runs.
“It’s the makeup of our team that really helps to reduce the impact of losing a player of Courtney’s caliber,” Paradis said. “This group of seniors has won two league championships, and they are out to capture a third.”
Saundra Renner, who hit a team-best .459 as a sophomore last year, has a team-best five RBI this year, and fellow junior Anahi Vences has the Titans’ lone home run and is batting .625.
In the circle, the freshmen duo of Hope Goodall and Bri Sa have struck out 22 batters and allowed one extra-base hit and four earned runs in 20 innings.
“They’ve grown up playing a year or two above their age,” Paradis said of Goodall and Sa. “They have already logged quite a few innings and gained experience, and it gives us the opportunity to polish and hone those skills to play at the next level.”
Paradis said he expects the league to be “as open as it’s ever been,” with Cabrillo poised to defend its title, and Templeton and Morro Bay looking to improve on a pair of 6-6 league records in 2013.
The Eagles boast an impressive senior class that includes all-county first-team first baseman Corinne Barto as well as second teamers Kiana Alba (shortstop) and Ashley Stevens (pitcher/outfielder).
The Pirates return senior Marissa Tabares, who hit .377 at the plate and went 6-8 with a 2.57 ERA and 95 strikeouts.
Morro Bay also welcomes back its two leading run producers from a year ago in senior Madelynn Martinez (team-best 20 RBI) and sophomore Fallon Molnar (13).
Old faces, new places for Paso Robles
After a season that saw Paso Robles finish second to only CIF-Southern Section Division 3 champion Righetti in the PAC 7, graduation has forced the Bearcats to shuffle plenty of positions in order to try to improve upon last year’s 9-3 league mark.
“Two of our players are in the same position as last year and that’s it,” coach Val Reynolds said. “Everyone else is either up from JV or playing in a different position.”
The two who are back in their spots from 2013, shortstop Chloe Kerns and catcher M’Lynn Martin, return to their usual places for good reason.
Martin has been the Bearcats’ backstop for her first three seasons while Kerns, who batted .360 and scored 21 runs as a freshman, has the look of a dynamic four-year starter.
“She’s going to be really good for us,” said Reynolds, who added that sophomore Dakota Rodriguez and junior Lacey Morris will be first-year varsity starters on the mound.
“We’re trying to get everyone to be more knowledgeable — more savvy — and really understand softball.”
Off to a 3-0 start, the Bearcats seem to be receiving the message; although Reynolds was quick to point out there will be plenty of tests in the league this year.
“I’m not going to count out anybody,” she said. “Coming off a CIF championship, (Righetti) has the most experience, but I think it’ll be like it always is — anybody’s to take.”
Arroyo Grande, fourth in the PAC 7 last year, returns the bulk of its pitching, led by junior Rebekah Hernandez. As a sophomore, Hernandez threw a team-high 641⁄3 innings, posting a 6-3 record, a 1.63 ERA (third-best in league) and 24 strikeouts. Bailey Killough struck out 14 batters in 18 innings as a freshman.
Atascadero, which won the PAC 7 in 2012 but went 4-8 in 2013, is led by all-county first-team second baseman Keara Blodget. She hit .420 as a junior along with 15 RBI and 22 runs scored. Classmate Nique Mack smashed three triples and scored 23 runs, and sophomore McKenzi Etchison drove in 19 runs and hit one of the team’s two home runs.
The Greyhounds (3-0) return all four of last year’s pitchers, highlighted by Kaala Wood, who posted a 7-5 record, a 1.94 ERA and 34 strikeouts as a junior.
San Luis Obispo (0-1) graduated a vast majority of its production — including all of its pitching — but returns Sami Good, who drove in 10 runs and hit .278 as a freshman.
Mission Prep went 5-16 last year, but brings back its top seven run producers and all three pitchers. Krista Arndt struck out 65 in 68 innings as a sophomore, and senior Kiana Harris hit .400 last year with a team-best 19 runs scored and 17 RBI.
Coast Union won the Coast Valley League with a perfect 10-0 mark in league, but is winless thus far in 2014 with losses to Templeton and Nipomo.