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A Winning Tradition
After opening the season 2-5, Ceres High varsity softball coach Donnie Donaldson and his players couldn't help but hear the skeptics. Talk surrounding the Bulldogs' playoff streak being in jeopardy swirled.

"There were concerns," he said. "But I knew we'd be successful if the girls reached their potential."

"I'm glad we made it to the playoffs because a lot of people doubted us at the beginning of the season," junior pitcher Vaneza Hoover said. "We proved them wrong."

Ceres High extended its string of consecutive playoff appearances to 23 seasons by winning 11 of 14 Valley Oak League games. The Bulldogs tied for second place with Sierra. Ceres received the league's No. 2 playoff seed by virtue of its 2-0 record against the Timberwolves.

"It wasn't hard to motivate the girls," Donaldson said. "They knew what was at stake."

Donnie provided an explanation for his team's slow start.

The Bulldogs returned just four starters from 2007, including Vaneza Hoover, Chelsea Lomeli, Hillary Haley and Amanda Lampley. VOL pitcher of the year Kristen Ghimenti graduated.

"We had a lot of issues going on at the beginning of the year," said Donaldson, whose team finished 0-4 at its home tournament. "It took us about eight games for everyone to get comfortable with each other."

Everything seemed to fall into place after Ceres High strung together three victories. The Bulldogs beat Pitman, Golden Valley and Weston Ranch. Ceres also finished second at the NorCal Classic gold bracket tournament.

"It's hard to pinpoint one thing," Donaldson said when asked to talk about his team's resurgence.

The Bulldogs did improve in all areas, including pitching, offense and defense.

Newcomers Mika Johnson, Jode Johnson, Ryan Norton and Cassie Rayford stepped up.

Mika, a junior centerfielder, moved from ninth to first in the lineup. She just learned how to bat from the left side this year. Johnson hit .440 (33-for-75) with 21 runs and 27 stolen bases.

"She worked extremely hard this year," Donaldson said. "She put in her own time to get better."

Younger sister Jode starred at shortstop. The sophomore totaled one homer, four triples, 13 RBIs and 15 stolen bases for the Bulldogs.

Norton, a freshman leftfielder, hit .333 (21-for-63) with one homer, five doubles and eight RBIs.

Rayford, a senior first baseman, added 14 hits, nine RBIs and six runs. She missed her junior season with a serious knee injury.

"Everybody contributes," Hoover said. "It's not just me. I rely on my team to help me out."

With help from Jimmy Dyson, Vaneza blossomed into the VOL's second-best pitcher behind state strikeout leader Erin Arevalo of East Union.

The junior right-hander notched back-to-back no-hitters against Arevalo and the VOL champion and section runner-up Lancers and playoff-participant Sierra.

Vaneza's also had a monster year at the plate, batting .351 with four homers, three triples, four doubles, 11 runs scored and 19 RBIs.

"She's amazing," Donaldson said.

Lomeli changed positions and didn't miss a beat. The senior third baseman batted .427 (32-for-75) with two homers, nine doubles, 17 runs and 25 RBIs.

Haley also produced. The sophomore rightfielder batted .299 (20-for-67) with five doubles, 11 runs and eight RBIs.

The Bulldogs had two games in which everybody got at least one hit.

"We can flip the lineup upside down and we'd still be pretty successful," Donaldson said. "We batted over .300 as a team."

Ceres High clinched a playoff berth by beating Oakdale 7-3 during the final week of the VOL season. The Bulldogs avenged a 2-1 loss.

"This year was pretty stressful," Donaldson said. "There was a lot of pressure on the girls."