With a new coaching staff, some key freshman and the Cookson sisters, the Falcons can compete for a league championship.
By Brandon HENSLEY
The Crescenta Valley High School softball team entered this season with a new coaching staff and a talented core of returning players who will try and unseat the reigning champion Burbank Bulldogs atop the Pacific League … and none too soon.
“I’m sick of practicing. I want to play games,” said senior first baseman Chloe Fairbrother.
The Falcons have played a small sample size so far, four games in a San Dimas tournament earlier this month. They are 3-1, the only loss coming against Charter Oak 3-2, a top team in Division II. Crescenta Valley, a Division III team, swept the rest of its games and that makes Coach John Pehar optimistic about his team’s chances.
“They’re a competitive group and they’re having fun. We’re going to be successful,” he said.
Pehar coached the junior varsity girls to a league title last season, and was named head varsity coach last summer after Mark Samford stepped down. Samford led the girls to a 20-6 season in 2012 and a 14-11 record last year, although both times CV lost its first playoff game.
Joining Pehar as assistants are former Lady Falcons Meredith Cervenka and Kali Cancelosi, who both played at the Division I level in college.
“They bring a lot and help me make decisions,” Pehar said. “Not to mention, they’re former Falcons, and we take a little bit of the old, mix in some new and see if we can get the right combination.”
This year’s team will not have Grace Poole and Tiffany Briscoe, each of whom spent valuable time at catcher when Jessica Morena fell ill halfway through the season. Pehar said freshman Rachel Abboud will take over those duties.
“She shows a lot of promise, she’s smooth,” Pehar said. “She can play anywhere.”
Another freshman likely to receive lots of playing time is Jessica Yzaguirre, who is slated to start in left field. Fairbrother said both freshmen have shown a lot in the preseason.
“They’ve been really good,” she said. “I don’t feel like they’re nervous. They don’t seem like they’re going to mess up.”
Yzaguirre herself seems confident.
“You just bring your skills from travel ball and you put it here,” she said. “You have to stay at your level and not let your intensity down.”
Offensively, the conversation starts with Hannah Cookson. The senior centerfielder, who is committed to play at Long Beach State next year, is expected to provide much of the power in the lineup. She has 23 home runs combined the last two seasons, and hit .435 and drove in 34 runs in 2013.
Her presence in the outfield is key as well, as she tracks down balls quickly and possesses a strong arm.
“She’s not in your face, acting like she’s the superstar,” Pehar said. “She’s out there, she plays and does everything you expect her to do. And she definitely brings up the rest of the girls. She makes them play better.”
While Hannah’s sister Hailey doesn’t have the same power, she’ll certainly be another tough out. Hailey, a junior shortstop, batted .467 last year with three triples. Both Hannah and Hailey had the most plate appearances for the team last year, 97 and 94 respectively, so expect to see a lot of them.
At third base, senior Taylor Hill will play an important role as well. Hill, who homered in last season’s playoff loss, is off a great start this spring, with seven hits in 13 at-bats with seven RBIS and a home run.
“Taylor, she’s a rocket at third base,” Pehar said. “The team is a lot stronger with her there … when she hits the ball she hits it hard.”
The Bulldogs, with junior pitching phenom Caitlyn Brooks in the circle as well as the plate, are the prohibitive favorites once Pacific League play starts, but the Falcons will try and match Brooks with senior Olivia Thayer.
Thayer posted a 1.74 earned-run average last year and was on top of her game earlier this month, as she currently holds a .56 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 25 innings pitched. She also will be getting much more time at the plate this spring (three hits in eight at-bats so far, including a home run).
Crescenta Valley hasn’t won the Pacific League since 2011 – Burroughs and Burbank are the most recent champions – and for seniors Hannah, Fairbrother, Thayer and Hill, they’d like to change that. They’ll play in a tournament on Saturday before opening up league play on Tuesday at Pasadena High School.
“They’re going to be the team with the best competition,” Fairbrother said of Burbank. “It’ll be interesting to see because we’ve gotten better.”
“Of course you want to knock the top team off,” Pehar said. “Our girls, they want to do that. Nothing can be more exciting, and you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”