NBL softball preview: Youth will be served

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay League has a lot of players who can drive a softball this year. It just doesn’t have many who can drive a car — not legally, anyway. For better or worse, this is a strikingly young league.

Take Santa Rosa. The Panthers were composed mainly of freshmen last year. Most of those players are back in 2012, but Santa Rosa’s roster is still fresh-faced, with two freshmen, seven sophomores, two juniors and not a senior to be found.

The other teams expected to contend for the NBL title are similarly youthful. Rancho Cotate has five sophomores, six juniors and just one senior. Maria Carrillo has two freshmen, four sophomores and eight juniors — seniors need not apply. Ukiah doesn’t field any freshmen or sophomores, but 9 of 11 Wildcats are juniors. And Montgomery has three freshmen, four sophomores, five juniors and only two seniors.

“I think a lot of teams had seven or eight seniors who graduated,” Santa Rosa coach Jeff Pratt said. “They lost everybody and they’re having to rebuild. They’re like us last year.”

The youth movement makes the NBL unpredictable this season. It’s hard to guess which young players will smoothly make the transition to starting at the varsity level, and how the teams are likely to evolve over the course of the season as the kids develop. Should make it interesting to watch.

Rancho Cotate
How do you replace the best player in the Redwood Empire? The Cougars will find out this season as they move on without Shonna Christianson, a two-way terror on the mound and in left field last year. Fortunately for Rancho, it still has pitcher Katy Kibbe, who was 9-4 with a 1.58 ERA a year ago.
“She’ll probably throw 90 to 95 percent of our games,” coach Dave Johnson said of Kibbe. “She’s gonna get the ball. She’s our senior, she’s our anchor.”
And she hits, too. Kibbe already has three home runs in this young season. She is supported by slugging junior center fielder Keilani Fronda (five triples and three home runs in 2011), who bats third in the lineup, and junior catcher Amanda Maheras.
“We knew we had to work hard this year,” Johnson said. “If we can play defense, we should be OK, because the hitting is coming along. It’s about getting hot at the right time.”

Santa Rosa
Last year, Pratt put together a relatively mild preseason schedule, not wanting to demoralize a ridiculously young team at a school that didn’t have a recent record of success. After the Panthers’ surprising 15-6 finish, the coach bumped it up a notch this year, and they responded with a 3-2 preseason mark against teams that included Petaluma and Napa.
Pratt doesn’t like to single out his players, but the Panthers return two who made the All-NBL team last year: sophomore pitcher Denia Vera and junior catcher Alison Wendler. Vera was 8-1 with a 2.43 ERA, and also batted .492. Wendler hit .468 with 20 RBIs.
“We’re a very good hitting team,” Pratt said. “For so long, we had no pitching. This year we’ve got another pitcher besides Denia.”
Junior Sarah Andersen and freshman Johanna Peelen are likely to see time on the mound for Santa Rosa.

Maria Carrillo
A lot of people expect the Pumas to be the most improved team in the NBL, and their 6-3 start has justified the optimism.
Carrillo’s top returning hitters include a pair of juniors, shortstop Mikaela Francis and first baseman Shelby Holzworth. Francis was an all-league pick last year when she hit .458 and led the Pumas in RBIs (27) and runs (23). Holzworth batted .311 with 19 RBIs.
They will be joined by two sophomores who have gotten off to great starts in 2012. Left fielder Brittney Veler was hitting .545 after nine games and leading the team with 18 hits, 13 runs and 12 RBIs. Robin Johnson has brought stability to the mound, with a 5-2 record and a 2.45 ERA in the early going.

Ukiah
The Wildcats were undefeated in non-league play, including a 1-0 victory over Casa Grande, before losing to Maria Carrillo in their NBL opener.
They could be in contention for a league title this year after going 9-5 (14-11 overall) a year ago. They will be sparked by a pair of superior players: senior shortstop and co-captain Katie Smallcomb, and pitcher Madison Klee, a junior. Center fielder Hailey Young is Ukiah’s other co-captain.

Montgomery
The Vikings finished second in the NBL at 10-4 in 2011, but Malvino knows it will be hard to replicate that success this time around.
“We’re in kind of a rebuilding state,” the coach said. “We have some good athletes. We’ll probably be able to compete, but we’re a shell of the team we were last year.”
Even that shell looks solid, though. Third baseman Megan Stroud and outfielder Vic Diab (Monty’s only seniors) are among the top returning hitters in the league. Diab hit .425 last year and was second on the team in hits (31) and third in runs (23). Stroud batted .349 and tied for the team lead with 24 RBIs. They are joined by a couple of slugging sophomores in shortstop Hailey Hermann and first baseman Hayley Komrij.
“We can hit,” Malvino said. “We spend about 80 percent of our time working on hitting the ball — and other teams know that. We don’t have an easy out in the lineup. If we have an Achilles’ heel, it’s our pitching.”

Cardinal Newman
The final softball team in Ursuline High history went 8-14 and ended the season with a close loss to Bishop O’Dowd in the North Coast Section Division 3 playoffs. The first softball team in Cardinal Newman history is hoping to build on that record.
Keying the Cardinals in 2012 is Hailey Eisenhauer, who made headlines when she pitched a perfect inning in an exhibition game against the U.S. National Team as an eighth grader. Now Eisenhauer is a senior, and she’s equally strong whether pitching or playing shortstop.
Newman is fairly young, too, with two sophomores and two freshmen. One of the freshmen, third baseman Kazja Fa’agata Averbuck, looks like a nice addition. And senior catcher Elissa Maloney can hit with power and field her position well.

Piner
The Prospectors’ only two victories in the NBL last year came at the expense of Elsie Allen. They’re hoping for more in 2012, and a 13-2 preseason victory over Healdsburg made it seem possible.
Piner should be solid up the middle, where returning starters include junior pitcher Kaitlin Collard, senior catcher Grace Kaufman, senior second baseman Allison Santos and junior shortstop Allison Lopez. Collard was third on the team with 15 hits last year, and Kaufman tied for second with 10 RBIs.

Elsie Allen
The Lobos were 1-21 overall in 2011, rising from the ashes of a year with softball. They have started 0-7 this season. Things should get a little better next year when they move to the Sonoma County League.
Meanwhile, Elsie is counting on the experience of players like sophomores Ashlee Collins, Laura Hernandez, and Amelie Giampaoli, and junior Jessica Espada.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.