February 23, 2024

As the 2024 softball season begins, no program in the Southland has higher expectations than defending Southern Section Division 1 champion Garden Grove Pacifica, which hopes to be in the top spot again in late May.

Guided by reigning Southern Section coach of the year Tony Arduino, the Mariners return most of their starters, including senior pitcher Brynne Nally, a Long Beach State signee who was selected Division 1 player of the year last spring after posting a 1.87 earned-run average, 14 complete games, six shutouts and 172 strikeouts in 142 innings.

More than 10 years ago she started playing in the same league with six other seniors who are fellow college commits: shortstop Kaniya Bragg to UCLA, center fielder Kayli Counts to California, catcher Delaina Ma’ae to UC Santa Barbara, first baseman Annika Sogsti to Cal State Fullerton, infielder Samantha Milligan to Davis & Elkins and infielder Malia Cuevas (a transfer from Los Alamitos) to Northwest Missouri State.

The lineup is loaded. Sogsti has started since her freshman year and led the team in doubles (11) and RBIs (25) as a junior. Ma’ae led in batting average (.440), hits (37) and home runs (five) while Bragg led in runs scored (34) and slugging percentage (.743). Add to the mix speedy freshman outfielder Mattea Stern, who will bat leadoff, and the team should generate plenty of runs.

Last season the Mariners embraced the underdog role through the playoffs after finishing second in the Empire League and upsetting top-seeded Norco 15-9 in the championship game for their eighth section crown, an Orange County record. They begin this season with targets on their backs.

Huntington Beach High pitcher Zoe Prystajko poses for a photo at the pier.

Zoe Prystajko returns in the circle for Huntington Beach High.

(Joe Katchka)

Norco went 28-4 last spring and, despite the loss of seven players to graduation, the Cougars should be contenders again, led by junior outfielder Tamryn Shorter, who belted a three-run triple in the championship game last season and has committed to Boise State.

Los Alamitos, eliminated by Pacifica in the quarterfinals a year ago, will attempt to defend its Sunset League title against Huntington Beach and Marina. The Griffins graduated eight players, among them star pitcher Berkley Vance, but back are catcher Allyssa Ramos (an Iowa signee who was the offensive MVP in league last year) and outfielder Camryn Johnson, a Seattle University commit.

Back for Huntington Beach is All-CIF pitcher Zoe Prystajko, who led the Oilers in RBIs (30) and homers (10) while recording 154 strikeouts and surrendering only five extra-base hits in 85 innings in the circle. Shortstop Liah Lummus had 19 hits, 23 RBIs and five homers.

Junior Kai Minor will patrol center field for Trinity League champion Orange Lutheran after batting .423, stealing a team-best 24 bases and scoring a team-best 30 runs last year. Senior pitcher Brianne Weiss is among the best in the area, posting a 0.79 ERA with 14 complete games, nine shutouts and 185 strikeouts in 106 innings last year.

Oaks Christian won 30 games and reached the Division 1 semifinals last year. The Lions are poised for another deep playoff run with 13 returners from a squad that was 15-0 in the Marmonte League, paced by third baseman Rylee McCoy (54 hits, 55 RBIs, .514 average, 48 runs, 11 homers, 15 doubles), outfielder Lily Knox (37 hits, 29 RBIs, 10 doubles, nine homers) and Ilove’a Brittingham (39 hits, 43 RBIs, 13 homers).

Murrieta Mesa also advanced to the Division 1 semifinals. The Southwestern League champions are led by sophomore pitcher Lilly Hauser (7-2 with 76 strikeouts in 21 appearances in the No. 2 role last year).

Orange Lutheran center fielder Kai Minor lays down a drag bunt during a game last season against Santa Margarita.

Orange Lutheran center fielder Kai Minor lays down a drag bunt during a game last season against Santa Margarita.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Other Southern Section schools that could contend for championships include reigning Division 2 champion Great Oak, reigning Division 3 champion Capistrano Valley, Riverside Poly, Foothill, Fullerton, La Mirada, Esperanza, Rio Mesa, Moorpark, Ayala, Marina, Sierra Canyon, Aliso Niguel, JSerra, Millikan, Grand Terrace, Tesoro, Cypress, Santa Margarita, Burbank Burroughs, Dos Pueblos, Schurr, El Toro, South Hills, Valley View, Torrance, Eastvale Roosevelt, Vista Murrieta, California, JW North, Ganesha, Anaheim Canyon, La Palma Kennedy and Liberty.

In the City Section, Carson took the Open Division title last spring and the Colts appear to have the firepower to repeat with the likes of left fielder and City player of the year Riannah Maulupe, All-City first baseman Alana Langford and All-City shortstop Ashannalee Titialii returning alongside pitchers Giselle Pantoja and Alexis Rodriguez.

Pushing Carson for the Marine League crown will be San Pedro, which was banned from the playoffs a year ago after having to forfeit seven games for using an ineligible player. Among the returnees for the Pirates are sophomore pitcher Jenna Ortega, base-stealing threat Kaitlyn Borges and top hitter Dahlia Davila.

Not to be overlooked is 18-time City champion El Camino Real, which considered 2023 a down year despite reaching the Open semifinals. The Royals have 10 players back from a team that finished third in the West Valley League behind Open Division runner-up Granada Hills and semifinalist Birmingham.

Granada Hills lost one varsity player to graduation, second baseman Francesca Luster. The Highlanders’ roster features three All-City returners: shortstop Jeniece Jimenez, outfielder Jocelyn Jimenez and junior pitcher Addison Moorman as well as RBI leader Malia Plourde, who homered in the finals against Carson — a game in which the Highlanders rallied for 10 runs in the bottom of the sixth before losing 12-11 in extra innings.

Jessica Ramos hit a two-run single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh to lift Chavez over San Fernando in the Division I final last season. The senior catcher will try to produce more heroics this spring.

Other Division I contenders include Birmingham, Kennedy, Eagle Rock, Venice, Garfield, South Gate and Marshall. Division II champion Verdugo Hills graduated only three players and should be strong again.

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