For Port Of Los Angeles High softball, it's the start of a brand new challenge, and the dawning of another season to defend their CIF-Los Angeles City Section Small School Division championship they've claimed in each of the past two seasons.
Head coach Melissa Bugarin-Espinoza returns for her fourth season flanked by a great coaching staff that includes her husband Moses, Mark Miranda and Miguel Valencia, and in the past two seasons, the Polar Bears have posted a record of 39-14 with back-to-back Crosstown League and City Section titles. With all the veterans returning and only one senior on the 2013 roster, it would be hard-pressed to not see POLA back in the championship picture.
Sophomore pitcher Nicolle Miranda, senior catcher Brianna Grayson, junior shortstop Kelsea Short, junior 1B/OF Allison Bayer, sophomore 3B Briana Valencia, junior outfielder Sarah Maldonado and sophomore 2B Tiffany Torres, who all were All-City Small Schools selections, return for another year together.
For Grayson, Short, Bayer and Maldonado, it's a chance at some rarefied air of becoming three-time champions.
2012 was a monumental year of firsts for the Polar Bears' softball program.
Last year was their (and the school sports program's) first 20-win season as they went 21-7 overall, with all seven losses coming off against highly respectable programs, one of which (Chino) was an eventual CIF-Southern Section champion. POLA softball also became the first Polar Bear sports team to defeat in-city neighbor San Pedro, a well-renowned softball program with 16 City titles, during the El Segundo Tournament with a thrilling comeback victory.
All of that, along with steamrolling through the Crosstown League, would parlay into their second straight City title when they bested rival Harbor Teacher Prep of Wilmington, 6-0 at UCLA.
Miranda, the team's most feared pitcher and one of many dangerous hitters (a team-leading 6 home runs last season), will not be alone as she'll also be joined by incoming freshmen Lexus Ibarra-Guzman and Vanessa Munoz. Ibarra-Guzman will also see time at second base early in the season, while Torres finishes up girls soccer at POLA.
Bayer, Valencia and Short are very tough defensively and will come up with clutch hits when needed. It was Short who delivered the game winning hit that downed San Pedro, while both Valencia and Bayer each hit a clutch home run during the Polar Bears' playoff run. Maldonado is a deadly slap hitter, covers a lot of ground at center field, and is the team's returning leader in stolen bases. Torres committed the fewest errors in the infield.
Grayson is a catcher who doesn't take plays off, going all out on pop-ups, and isn't afraid to get dirty. The four-year veteran also led POLA with 11 triples, showing that she carries a mean stick. Grayson went 3-for-4 with a triple, a double, 2 runs scored an an RBI in POLA's championship win over Harbor Teacher Prep.
The other returning players look to make their own impact.
Sophomores OF/1B Laura Leos, OF/DH Adriana Vargas, sophomore catcher Reanna Rivera and sophomore INF/OF Tiffany Mercado all got their chances to shine during the playoffs last year and have had their best moments during their successful first season. Leos and Bayer will trade-off starting at first base from time to time, while Rivera is the second string catcher behind Grayson.
Five newcomers to the mix will also try to make their presence felt.
Ibarra-Guzman and Munoz add depth to the pitching staff. Freshman Emily Ibarra is power-hitting lefty that can play first base and outfield. Sophomore C/INF Savana Ramirez was recently added to the team, and sophomore third baseman Rosemary Garcia, a San Pedro transfer who's the younger sister of former Pirate Victoria Garcia, brings some added punch to the infield.
All these pieces to this puzzle may add up to some more success for the Polar Bears' softball program.
POLA begins their season on Saturday at the Redondo Union Tournament with a pair of pool play games.