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Jessica Campos didn't plan on playing softball after she graduated from Ceres High School in 2002. Campos, a two-year varsity player, changed her mind and earned a spot in Modesto JC's starting lineup during her freshman year.

"Thank God she did," said Modesto coach Jessi Leveroos.

Added Campos: "I never thought I was good enough to play at the next level."

Campos earned first-team, all-Central Valley Conference honors and almost led the Pirates into the postseason while playing shortstop, a position that she had never played.

The 2004 Pirates are on the verge of securing a berth in the playoffs for the first time in six years. Campos and three of her closest friends and former teammates at the high-school and youth levels, Omaira Estremera, Michelle Jara and Vanessa Huerta, are leading the way.

"We got really lucky," Leveroos said. "We don't usually get a lot of players from Ceres."

Campos, Estremera and Jara start. Huerta comes off the bench.

Campos plays third base and bats third in the Pirates' batting order. The sophomore is batting .296 with five doubles, two homers and 16 RBIs. She ranks first on her team in sacrifices with five and is tied for second in RBIs with Estremera.

"She's the best third baseman I have seen in the six years I have been at MJC," Leveroos said. "She'll knock everything down and she has an outstanding arm."

Jara plays second base and bats leadoff. The freshman is batting .250 with four doubles and eight RBIs.

"She has outstanding range and a great knowledge of the game," Leveroos said.

Estremera is a freshman pitcher.

The southpaw has compiled a 7-2 record and 2.05 ERA. She has 53 strikeouts in 60 innings.

"Omaira has a lot of room for growth," Leveroos said. "Her potential is amazing."

Estremera has also contributed on offense as the No. 5 or 6 hitter in the lineup. She's batting .348 with 16 RBIs.

"I'm glad I came here," Estremera said. "I have my friends and I know Jessi. If I would have went to Merced I wouldn't have known anybody."

Added Leveroos: "I've known Omaira since she was 12. I work for her pitching coach."

Huerta splits time in the outfield with a handful of other players. The right fielder is batting .300 with two doubles, one triple and three RBIs.

Leveroos said Huerta has an outstanding attitude.

"She's a person I can count on to come off the bench," Leveroos said. "In one game against West Hills, we blew an eight-run lead but won by one run. In the bottom of the sixth inning, we scored three runs on Vanessa's triple."

Campos, Estremera and Jara have provided plenty of support.

"It's good to have them because when I'm having a bad day they're there to pick me up," Huerta said.

If Modesto makes the playoffs this year, Campos, Estremera, Jara and Huerta will get to take part in another celebration. The foursome are used to winning.

They won more than 40 games and placed first at a handful of tournaments while playing for the Ceres Sizzle 14-and-under team in 1998.

They never failed to make playoffs in high school. They led the Bulldogs to their sixth consecutive league title in 2002. Ceres went 18-0 in the Central California Conference.

"We're competitive because of the chemistry," Leveroos said.

Modesto is tied for third in the Central Valley Conference at 10-5 and had a 15-11 overall record as of Monday. The top three teams advance. - By DALE BUTLER / Staff Reporter of The Ceres (Calif.) Courier