There are two big reasons the Merced softball team is the heavy favorite to win a fourth straight Central California Conference championship this season. Their names are Madilyn Nickles and Chelsea Evans.
The Bears arguably have the two best pitchers in the conference in Nickles and Evans. If that’s not enough, Merced also has the most potent offense.
It was all on display in Tuesday’s CCC opener as the Bears defeated Pitman 5-0.
The sophomore Nickles, who already had a verbal commitment with UCLA before she pitched in a high school game as a freshman, threw a two-hitter. The overpowering right-hander struck out eight, walked two and hit two.
“Her curve and drop were on today,” said catcher Megan Kravec, who had a pair of hits. “She got a lot of people with her changeup. Our pitching staff is very strong. With Chelsea and (Nickles). Both of them are Division 1 players. It’s awesome to have both of them going every other game.”
Evans will throw on Thursday against Buhach Colony. She’s already accepted a softball scholarship to Stony Brook University in New York.
All you need to know about the Bears offense is that Kravec hits sixth in the lineup. She hit three home runs in a game against Los Banos last week.
Against Pitman, it was the bottom of the Merced’s order that did most of the damage.
The Bears (6-1) broke open a scoreless tie with a four-run fourth inning. The rally started with a walk to Ruby Quiralte. Kravec followed with a single and Marrisa Castillo lined a double to left to plate Quiralte with the first run.
A single by Lauren Coonce, a misplayed ground ball off the bat of Shelbee Ward and a single by Rheanne Lewis quickly gave Merced a 4-0 lead.
The bottom four of Merced’s order combined to go 6 for 13 with three RBIs and three runs scored.
“I know even if the middle of our order isn’t hitting we’ve got hitters all the way down our lineup,” said Bears coach Bart McAfee. “We count on everyone to hit. You look at some lineups and after they get done with the four and five, they’re hoping the other players can get hits.”
Quiralte and Ward also finished with two hits for Merced.
“Every individual player on our team has a strength,” Kravec said. “When you put all those together, all those individual strengths form a pretty strong team.”
With all their pieces in place the Bears come into the season with high expectations.
“Overall our goal is to do well at sections,” McAfee said. “Our No. 1 goal is to win CCC. That’s our focus. Anything after that is gravy.”
If the Bears have one weakness it’s a very thin bench with only 12 players on the roster. Merced can’t afford too many injuries.
“We do have a shortage of players,” Kravec said. “McAfee doesn’t want any of us to get hurt.”
Mahy struck out eight and walked one on her way to the win.
Kaitlan Sheehan provided the bulk of the Atwater offense with a pair of hits and three runs batted in. Unique Espinoza went 2 for 4 with an RBI.