SOFTBALL PREVIEW: La Habra the leader of the pack in what promises to be a season for the ages

Above: From left, La Habra’s Maleena Esparza, Vanessa Ciocatto and Shanin Thomas will play major roles for the Highlanders this season. (Staff photo by Keith Durflinger)

1. La Habra
2. La Mirada
3. Whittier Christian
4. La Serna
5. St. Paul

When it comes to high school softball, the Whittier area ranks right up there with any area in the CIF-Southern Section.
This season promises to be no different, with several of the area’s top players already signed to play at four-year schools, leading with Whittier Christian’s Mandie Perez, who signed with national power Arizona; St. Paul’s Brianna West (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo); La Mirada’s Amber Hickman (Towson State) and Rochelle Sablay (Delaware State) and La Habra’s Shanin Thomas (Michigan State) and Maleena Esparza (Northern Illinois).
The latter two have the Highlanders, who begin the season ranked
No. 1 in the area, thinking of possible postseason glory.
La Habra, which also returns four-year lettermen Cami Jacob and pitcher Vanessa Ciocatto, who was solid down the stretch in 2011, is looking at a little redemption in 2012 after following last season’s Freeway League title with a loss in the CIF-SS Division 4 quarterfinals.
“I’m not sure if they are playing with a chip on their shoulder,” said La Habra coach Frank McCarroll, whose Highlanders were 23-7 last season. “But they know what it takes to win games and have success.
“I felt last year we had a good shot to get to the finals, and it didn’t happen. We’ll see if we can continue what we started last year.”
Ciocatto is expected to be solid in the circle after going 10-2 with a 1.41 ERA in a limited role last season.
The offense is formidable with shortstop Esparza, who hit .554 and Thomas, who hit .351 with 26 RBIs and scored 23 runs.
Jacob anchors a solid outfield after hitting .355 and scoring 19 runs.
“It’s a veteran team,” McCarroll said. “We have four four-year lettermen and five kids who have played a lot of softball.
“They are hoping to get after it on the field and defend the league title.”
Here’s a brief look at the rest of the area top five:

2. La Mirada (21-12 in 2011)
The Matadores, finalists in Division 2, look capable of making a similar run with returnees Lisa Perez, Hickman, Sablay and Courtney Skogen.
Sablay and Skogen give coach Richard Trujillo some solid power after hitting .451 and .345 and driving in 25 and 24 RBIs, respectively.
Perez, who has signed to play at nearby Chapman University, is solid at catcher. She hit .370 last season with 19 RBIs and scored 20 runs.
Hickman also gives the Matadores a solid presence in the circle.
“(The players) know the feeling they felt last year,” said Trujillo, whose Matadores finished second in the Suburban League before advancing to the division final and losing to Camarillo. “We were really able to come together as a team.
“They are anxious to prove that they are a legitimate team. But we just try to do our best every single day and just want to be good today.”
3. Whittier Christian (20-8)
The Heralds took a step back last season but are expected to make a run at a division title this season.
The source of optimism comes from Perez and fellow returnee Katelyn Wagner. Whittier Christian also welcomes two freshmen who could put them over the top in 2012.
Perez, who signed with Arizona in the fall, arguably is the most talented player in the area. The senior shortstop hit .603 and had 29 RBIs and scored 34 runs. She also is solid defensively.
Wagner, a pitcher/infielder, complements the senior after hitting .375 with 28 RBIs.
Whittier Christian, which finished second in the Olympic League and advanced two rounds in Division 4, also looks strong in the circle with freshman Victoria Ayala, who could be the difference this season.
The Heralds also feature sophomore second baseman Lovie Lopez and freshman catcher Taylor Escobar.
“We definitely have the skill to do something this year,” Whittier Christian coach Dale Van Duyn said. “We just have to keep our injuries down.
“We have the kids who can (pitch). But our strength will be with our defense and our offense. It’s stronger than it has been the past few years.”
4. La Serna (20-8)
The Lancers have been the dominant program in the Del Rio League last season, and that’s not expected to change in the 2012.
La Serna is the league favorite with four key returnees led by all-area first-team outfielder Jackie Valdez.
The Lancers, who should be pushed by rival California in league, also look to third baseman Redd Pichardo, who was all-area second team; infielder A.J. Carrasco and outfielder/pitcher Nikki Oviedo.
5. St. Paul (15-13)
The Swordsmen, who could challenge in the Del Rey League, feature one of the area’s better offenses. It begins with infielder West, who hit .478 with 21 RBIs.
St. Paul also features sophomore infielder Krystal Gutierrez, who hit .586 and had 24 RBIs.

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