A new era begins for East Union softball and Sonora soccer.
In Oakdale, it’s the same ol’ same on the baseball diamond.
The three reigning Valley Oak League champions will begin defense of their titles starting this week.
The three schools in town figure to be in the mix in all three sports, but there are only two Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff berths available. The race to the top kicks off for soccer and baseball today, while softball begins Wednesday.
Here is an outlook to the upcoming VOL season:
There is no question which team is the one to beat.
Two-time defending section and league champion Oakdale (9-0) returns the conference’s two best hurlers in junior UCLA commit NickVander Tuig and Cal-bound senior Justin Jones, who combined for 66 strikeouts in 35 preseason innings while not giving up an earned run.
What may be a battle for the second and last playoff spot is a crapshoot between East Union (5-2), Manteca (6-4-1), Sierra (3-3) and Ceres (5-1).
Wade Morten (.438 AVG, eight RBIs), the Bulletin’s 2008 All-Area Most Valuable Player, and Ryan Fisher anchor East Union’s high-powered offense. Pitching ace Marshall Swift (1.75 ERA) is also back.
Last year, the Lancers caught fire in time to make an unexpected run to the section finals, where they lost to Oakdale, 4-0.
Manteca first-year head coach Gene Ballardo looks to lead his scrappy Buffaloes to their second straight postseason appearance. Kevin Allen (.526 AVG, nine RBIs) is off to a hot start. Like East Union, Manteca has enough to pop to plate runs, but questions regarding pitching depth and defense surround both clubs.
Sierra hopes to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2005 behind four-year varsity starting middle infielder Andy Scott, catcher Jordan Louie and 1B/P Jordan Ribota.
Ceres and Sonora (3-4) have already begun the regular season having split their opening series. Ceres has defeated 2008 Division V section titlist Central Catholic in the preseason. The Bulldogs boast one of the league’s most feared sluggers in Robert Cope (.592 AVG, two HRs, nine RBIs).
Central Valley (3-5) is a darkhorse contender with all-around talent Martin Gomez (.467 AVG, two HRs, 11 RBIs; 2.06 ERA. 27 strikeouts in 17 IP) leading the way.
With four-time All-Area Bulletin MVP and former East Union star pitcher Erin Arevalo gone to graduation, it figures to be a wide-open race between four clubs that enter the regular season with two or less non-league losses.
Two-time defending champion and section runner-up East Union (6-2) is still a frontrunner with sophomore standouts Brittany LaMar (.571 AVG), Cassie Waggy (.450 AVG) and Jillian Goulart all back. Junior Kourtni McCall (0.62 ERA), a starting infielder the previous two seasons, has taken over for Arevalo inside the chalked circle.
Ceres (8-1), Oakdale (6-1-1) and Sierra (5-1-2) appear ready to be ready to dethrone the Lancers.
Ceres’ Vaneza Hoover (0.78 ERA, 77 strikeouts in 45 IP) and Sierra’s Gabby Hawkins (0.51, 57 in 55) are two of the top returning pitchers in the league.
Oakdale is led by MacKenzie Taylor (.500 AVG, 12 RBIs) on offense, with sophomore Brianna Parker (0.48 ERA) and Andrea Lutz (1.68 ERA) combining from the pitcher’s stripe.
Sophomore Mariah Navarro and senior Trina Solario have been welcomed surprises in the circle for Manteca (3-2). Solario is also one of the top returning hitters in league.
Will Sonora’s three-year reign atop the VOL and section end without Coach Buzz Garvin and superstar striker Lexi Kopf no longer in the fold?
The Wildcats (4-0-1) may not be the offensive force they have been in recent seasons, but they have given up just one goal going into league play.
If the preseason is any indication, Sierra (11-0-1) looks to be on its way back to the top after claiming nine conference titles in 11 years (1996-2006). The Bulletin’s 2008 All-Area Soccer MVP, Nicole Vanni, is back with nine other starters who are complemented by talented underclassmen.
The Timberwolves have notched eight straight shutouts and are coming off a 6-0 victory over rival East Union (4-4-3) in the 4th Annual Vern Gephardt Champions Cup. East Union also returns a wealth of talent but was hampered by injuries and sicknesses during the preseason.
Manteca (6-2) is another strong contender, but it opens league with Sierra at home tonight and Sonora on the road Thursday.