The Merced College softball team got itself back to respectability in 2013.
After three straight very trying campaigns (21-78-1) for head coach Suzanne McGhee, the She-Devils entered the final week of the season still in contention for a playoff spot.
Merced (16-21) came up empty, but it was a definite step in the right direction.
McGhee’s squad went out and competed virtually every time it took the diamond. With four key players back and depth – the likes of which she’s never had in four years as the Merced College head coach – McGhee hopes her team can take the next step in 2014.
The She-Devils open the season today with a road doubleheader against preseason state No. 11 and NorCal No. 6 San Joaquin Delta in Stockton. The first pitch is set for noon.
“It’s definitely going to be a good first test for us,” McGhee said. “Delta is always good. We lost by one run to them in the fall, so we feel like we should be able to go in and compete.
“This group is pretty young, but they put in hard work and really seem to be getting it.”
McGhee feels she has has a solid foundation to build upon with pitchers Gabriella Espinosa and Sarah Ruiz, center fielder Mari Valdez and corner outfielder Sara Cervantes all back for their sophomore seasons. The quartet provides versatility, proven arms, bats and quiet leadership.
“They aren’t the overbearing sophomore personalities that you can sometimes have,” McGhee said. “They come in, they work hard and they lead by example.”
The biggest reason for McGhee’s optimism this season is the 11-player class she’s added to compliment her returners. After averaging just 11 players on her roster the last four years, McGhee scoured the Central Valley to try and bring in some depth.
In addition to the peace of mind from knowing she won’t be scrambling to fill the lineup each day, McGhee said having 15 players has created everyday competition. Starting spots are no longer the guarantee they were the last few seasons.
McGhee’s returners say the change is overt.
“Practices are much more intense,” Espinosa said. “Everybody out there is very businesslike. I like it because you can’t slack off. Even as a sophomore, when you see these new girls working their butts off for a spot, it makes you want to work too.”
Merced appears to have gotten a little better in all phases of the game. Pitchers Mari Duenes and Jessica Arias (Livingston) give McGhee two more arms to work with. Arias, Kerstin Smith (Buhach Colony) and Brittany Barron are just a few of the big bats McGhee has added and she thinks Jahnessa Anderson (Merced), sophomore transfer Sam Young (Atwater) and Barron improve the team speed.
“We definitely want to make the playoffs this season,” Valdez said. “We got so close last season, the goal is to find a way to finish it this time.
“The dynamic of this team is very different than last year, but coach brought in players who know the game. The potential is there. It’s going to be up to us to capitalize on it.”
Sun-Star staff writer Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or email@example.com.