Pacifica High softball senior Brynne Nally (5) in Garden Grove on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
HIGH SCHOOL SOFTBALL PREVIEW 2024
Some might wonder if Pacifica’s reigning CIF-SS Division 1 champion softball team will face many challenges this spring.
The Mariners, after all, return nine seniors, including four who earned All-County honors last season.
But talent-laded teams such as Pacifica still sometimes encounter stumbling blocks, especially with the mental side of the game. Will the Mariners practice and compete with the same tenacity and focus as they did on the way to the top?
Pacifica coach Tony Arduino has already identified that question as a potential foe. The team enjoyed the glow of its title celebrations but needs to concentrate on new business, he said.
“Turn the page is definitely the motto,” Arduino said. “It was special (last season) and you want to let them enjoy it but at the same time, we’re already at next year. It’s time.”
“Frankly, halfway through the fall, (I felt) kind of tried of hearing (about last year),” he added. “(I’m) just trying to motivate them to keep pushing hard. … We got nine seniors this year so this a great opportunity to do it again.”
No. 1 in The Register’s preseason rankings, Pacifica will lean on its seniors to stay focused, mentor newcomers and gear its season toward peaking in the playoffs. And all the while, the tradition of the storied program will serve as a guiding force behind the scenes.
The team’s drive will start with a core group of seniors who began their rise together.
Pitcher Brynne Nally, center fielder Kayli Counts, first baseman Annika Sogsti, catcher Delaina Ma’ae and shortstop Kaniya Bragg all arrived at the school at the same time as heralded freshmen. They helped the Mariners reach the Division 1 quarterfinals in 2021 and 2022 before breaking through last season.
“We definitely have more hunger than we did last year,” said Bragg, a slick fielder committed to UCLA. “We want to end our last high school season winning it all again. Being able to stay on top is definitely our goal.”
The seniors believe their leadership will be a key part of the formula.
“It’s important to be a role model for the other athletes,” said Ma’ae, a power hitter committed to UC Santa Barbara. “Whether it’s holding other people accountable or keeping ourselves accountable, we just want to hold ourselves to a (high) standard.”
Sogsti, a slugger committed to Cal State Fullerton, said the seniors have proven their work ethic but can’t let up.
“We have to work even harder than we did last year because now we have more of a target on our back,” she said. “Our motto is just to work hard all the time. We never take any pitches off, reps off, and that’s how we have became champions.”
Nally, a Long Beach State signee, said the seniors hope to pass along those habits and attitudes to the newcomers. Players such as freshman Mattea Stern, who is expected to play left field and bat leadoff, and second baseman Malia Cuevas, a transfer from Los Alamitos.
“We’re just trying to uphold what we were taught as freshman,” Nally said. “Jacquelyn Bickar (now at Long Beach State) was our captain.”
“We’re all trying to be Jac in one form and try to take after what she did with us,” she added. “Obviously, it worked pretty well.”
Pacifica junior catcher Catherine Benitez recently committed to UC Santa Barbara. … Pacifica and Huntington Beach are hosting the new 1st Pitch Challenge on Feb. 10 and 17. … The Dave Kops Tournament of Champions in Arizona (Feb. 29-March 2) and the Michelle Carew Classic (March 27-30) remain top tournaments. … Fullerton is a new addition to the teams entered in the Kops and Carew. … The CIF-SS section finals are May 17-18. … The Orange County all-star game is June 5.
ORANGE COUNTY PRESEASON TOP 10
1. Pacifica: The reigning CIF-SS Division 1 champion is well-positioned for another run with nine returning seniors. The Mariners are especially strong up the middle with Long Beach State commit Brynne Nally in the circle, UC Santa Barbara-committed catchers Catherine Benitez, UCLA-bound shortstop Kaniya Bragg and Delaina Ma’ae and Cal-bound center fielder Kayli Counts. The team’s most pressing question is figuring out who plays third base.
Huntington Beach starting pitcher Zoe Prystajko delivers a pitch against Los Alamitos in a Surf League softball game at Huntington Beach High School in Huntington Beach on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Sam Gangwer, Contributing Photographer)
2. Huntington Beach: The Oilers return seven starters and one platoon player from a squad that finished 24-6 last season. The leader is Stanford-bound Zoe Prystajko, the reigning Register O.C. player of the year who excels in the circle and at the plate. One key for Huntington Beach will be receiving consistent contributions from multiple players. College commits Macy Fuller (San Marcos), Liah Lummus (Loyola Marymount) and Saige Anderson (UC Santa Barbara) are among the hitters to watch.
3. Los Alamitos: The Griffins remain a dangerous contender with several college-bound returners. Iowa committed catcher Allyssa Ramos leads a deep lineup that includes Florida committed shortstop Kalie Matsuno, Gabby Terrones (San Diego State) and Callie Fitzpatrick (Long Beach State). Pitching is the area to watch. Senior Cari Ferguson, sophomore Jo Marsh and junior Layni Kimura are competing for the starting spot.
4. Orange Lutheran: The defending Trinity League champion returns one of the region’s best tandems in reigning O.C. pitcher of the year Brianne Weiss and Oklahoma committed center fielder Kai Minor. The Lancers’ challenge will be developing more offensive firepower and supporting Weiss in the circle. No. 2 pitcher Peyton May transferred to Norco in the offseason. Part of the answer on offense will be team speed, Coach Steve Miklos said.
5. JSerra: The Lions look ready for their jump to Division 1. They have an intriguing pitching duo in Cal State Fullerton commit Eva Hurtado and freshman Abby Ford. The offense appears solid with the return of infielders Alyssa Grajeda and Kaylee Layfield and catcher Mia Krueger. One question is whether JSerra can get past Orange Lutheran in the Trinity League.
Esperanza ’s Taylor Shumaker (21) gets a fist bump after scoring on a home run by Sharyn Duncan (10) in a game against Canyon a Crestview League softball game at Canyon High School in Anaheim on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
6. Esperanza: The Aztecs again look well-rounded and the team to beat in the Crestview League. They return one of the best players in the county in Florida-bound center fielder Taylor Shumaker and pitcher Charley Duran. Coach Ed Tunstall said the team needs to stay healthy because of lack of depth. The Aztecs have already lost three returners, including two to injuries.
7. Canyon: The Comanches are loaded with returners, including several committed to colleges, as they make the jump to Division 1. They feature a trio of returning first-team all-Crestview League selections in catcher Carson Cooper (Vanguard), shortstop Jade Diaz (Cal) and center fielder Samantha Gresham (Dartmouth). The key for Canyon will be in the circle with the junior duo Bella Settembro and Jordan Simmons.
Capistrano Valley players crowd around home plate to congratulate Madi McDonnell as she rounds the bases following a home run during a 6-1 win over Santiago in the CIF-SS Division 3 final between the two teams on Saturday, May 20, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)
8. Capistrano Valley: The reigning CIF-SS Division 3 champion returns several key players for new coach Freddy Gomez, also a travel coach for the Firecrackers. Senior ace and power hitting Madi McDonnell, a University of Texas at Arlington commit, leads a group featuring collegiate commits such as shortstop Quinn Southerland (Boise State), Maddie McSorley (Utah Valley) and catcher Mikayla Turi (Cal State Fullerton).
9. Aliso Niguel: The defending South Coast League champion welcomes back several standouts but will open the season without Tulsa commit Katelyn Dunakin (injured). “We hope to get her back in some capacity this year but time will tell,” Wolverines coach Randie Baldwin said. The Wolverines will lean on junior Olivia Kuhnel in the circle and hitters such as Tessa Cowsill, Taylor Nelson and Gigi Ganje. Nelson and Ganje are committed to Stanford and Penn, respectively.
10. Cypress: The Centurions return their core from a group that captured the Empire League title last season. Ace Madeline Granados (Biola) and power-hitting third baseman Breana Townsend (BYU) earned All-County honors last season. Also watch for center fielder Makayla Bishop, versatile Delaney Faus and shortstop Bri Holguin.
Also considered (list alphabetically): El Modena, Fullerton, Marina, Mission Viejo.
TOP PLAYERS TO WATCH
Makenzie Butt, Fountain Valley Sr., 1B: The Boise State signee is back as one of Orange County’s premier power hitters. She led the county with 13 home runs last season while hitting .512 with 54 RBIs.
Aleena Garcia, Whittier Christian, Sr., SS: The UCLA signee combines an explosive bat with stellar defense. She hit .653 last season with seven home runs and 39 RBIs.
Fullerton’s starting pitcher Malaya Majam-Finch delivers a pitch against Foothill in the CIF-SS Division 4 softball championship in Irvine on Saturday, May 20, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)
Malaya Majam-Finch, Fullerton, So., P: Majam-Finch gained plenty of experience last spring in leading the Indians to the CIF State Division 3 regional title. She went 22-6 with an 0.83 ERA. She returns throwing harder as Fullerton embarks on a more challenging schedule.
Madi McDonnell, Capistrano Valley, Sr., P: Don’t forget about this University of Texas at Arlington commit in the conversation of top dual threats in Orange County. The reigning CIF-SS Division 3 player of the year went 16-5 last season with a 2.55 ERA and hit .469 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs. The production helped the Cougars win their first CIF title.
Kai Minor, Orange Lutheran, Jr., CF: Expect the Oklahoma commit to continue to impress with her speed, hitting and defense. She’s earned first-team All-County honors as a freshman and sophomore, and racked up 46 stolen bases.
Brynne Nally, Pacifica, Sr., P: The reigning CIF-SS Division 1 player of the year is back as a key player and leader for the county’s top-ranked team. The Long Beach State signee went 5-0 in the playoffs last season to lead the Mariners to the title. She finished 15-7 with a 1.87 ERA.
Zoe Prystajko, Huntington Beach, Sr., P/1B: The reigning Orange County player of the year returns as the county’s top dual threat. Last season, the Stanford-signee went 13-3 with a 1.68 ERA and hit .442 with 10 home runs. She has the arm and hammer to lead the Oilers.
Allyssa Ramos, Los Alamitos, Sr., C: The returning second-team All-County selection could emerge as the top hitter for the Griffins. The Iowa signee hit .435 last season with seven home runs and 20 RBIs.
Taylor Shumaker, Esperanza, Sr., CF: Aztecs coach Ed Tunstall believes the Florida signee is primed for her best season yet. That could be scary considering she hit .471 last season with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs. Shumaker recently earned all-tournament honors at the Super Cup for the Orange County Batbusters travel team.
Brianne Weiss, Orange Lutheran, Sr., P: Watch out if the Notre Dame signee picks up where she left off last spring. The left-hander led the county in strikeouts (185) and ERA (0.79) en route to earning Orange County pitcher of the year.
Orange Lutheran’s Brianne Weiss starts on the mound against Oaks Christian during Division 1 playoff action May 9, 2023.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)