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The Ceres High School varsity softball team has reason to be confident heading into the 2010 season.

The Bulldogs return a solid core of players from last year.

Jode Johnson, Kaycee Creek, Ryan Norton and Taiylor Sakurada will try to lead Ceres High to its 25th straight playoff appearance and best finish in conference play. The Bulldogs have never placed higher than second since moving to the Valley Oak League in 2007.

"It's definitely in everyone's head," Johnson said while talking about Ceres High's tradition of excellence. "We're going to try to keep the streak alive. I don't think it should be a problem for us. This should be our year."

Johnson claimed the league's Most Valuable Player award as a junior. The right-handed slugging shortstop ranked first in just about every statistical category, including batting average (.571), home runs (five), runs scored (21), RBIs (24), slugging percentage (1.119) and on-base percentage (.617). She also had nine stole bases, the second-highest total in conference play.

"I'm trying to surpass what I did last year," Jode said. "I really don't think I did that good. I was surprised I got MVP."

Johnson was recognized for her clutch play.

She hit a walk-off, three-run homer with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, rallying the Bulldogs to an 8-6 victory over East Union in a pivotal VOL game.

"Without that, we don't make playoffs," Ceres High head coach Donnie Donaldson said.

Creek posted a 9-2 record with a 1.69 ERA, two shutouts and 69 strikeouts while starring at pitcher at the varsity level as a freshman.

The first-team, VOL honoree also batted .366 from the plate (15-for-41) with four doubles, seven runs and even RBIs.

"She's looking forward to this year," Donaldson said.

Norton (CF, Jr.) received first-team, all-conference accolades as well. She batted .404 (19-for-47) with two doubles, six stolen bases, 12 runs and four RBIs.

Taiylor Sakurada (2B, Jr.), made the VOL second team. She batted .200 (6-for-30) with two steals, seven runs, two RBIs.

Other returning varsity players from last season are Erica Reyes (RF/Sr.), Hillary Haley (3B/LF, Sr.), Shalaina Carvahal (LF, Sr.) and Jessica Ellsworth (3B/1B, So,).

Reyes batted .212 (7-33) with one triple, one steal, seven runs, eight RBIs a season ago.

Jamie Beck (1B/P, Jr.), Alison Ghimenti (OF/Jr.), Cassandra Carrillo (OF/So.) and Cierra Hammons (C, So.) are new the team. They were members of the Bulldogs' frosh-soph team last year.

Beck, 6-foot-2 standout basketball player, provides depth at pitcher. She could start for any other team in the VOL.

"Our team is loaded with travel ball players," Donaldson said. "That makes a huge difference."

Under Donnie's direction the past three seasons, Ceres High posted a combined record of 43-29-2 (30-12 in league), qualified for the playoffs every year and finished runner-up in the VOL standings twice.

"We should make a run at the VOL title," said Donaldson, the reigning coach of the year. "That's our goal."

The top three teams in the league qualify for the postseason. Ceres High, Oakdale and Sierra participated last year. The Bulldogs, Mustangs and Timberwolves will battle for berths this season, along with East Union and Manteca.

Ceres High will also try to win its first section title since 1995. The Bulldogs have placed second three times (1989, 1991 and 1993).

"In my mind, it's a possibility," Johnson said when asked if Ceres High would make some noise in the playoffs in 2010. "Our hitting, base running and defense is going to be way better. We know what we want to accomplish. We just need to be on the same page. And I think we are."

* * * * *

Hawks facing a rebuilding year

• Central Valley program loses four key players to another sport

Central Valley High School's varsity softball team didn't win a conference game during its first year of existence in 2007.

The Hawks enjoyed their best season to date in 2009, finishing in fifth place in the Valley Oak League standings with a 6-8 record.

Central Valley will strive for continued excellence this year.

The Hawks have to make due without several key players, including Alyssa Meshach, Alyssa Long, Alicia Yori and Victoria Ochoa.

"We pretty much have a new team," said Manny Bejaran, who shares co-head coaching duties with Bill Evans this year. "Some of the girls moved to soccer. It puts us back a couple steps. We just have to work a little harder."

Central Valley returns four players from last year's team, including Jessica Berndt (1B, Jr.), Amandah Fleming (P/OF, Sr.), Ashley Sewell (3B/OF, Sr.) and Victoria Bevan (OF, Sr.).

Berndt's a third-year varsity member. She earned second-team, all-conference honors as a sophomore. Jessica batted .213 (10-for-47) with one triple, three stolen bases, six runs and six RBIs. She shares team-captain honors with Fleming.

Molly Littmann (P/OF, Jr.), Breonna Bejaran (C/UTL, Fr.), Malynda Lomeli (SS/OF Fr.), Amanda Randez (OF, Sr.), Amanda Lopez (OF/UTL, Sr.), Ashtyn Carrillo (2B/OF, Jr.) and Victoria Gutierrez (OF/P, So.), Rose Moore (2B, So.) and Maday Padilla (SS, So.) are first-year varsity players.

Randez transferred from Pitman.

Fleming and Littmann will split playing time at pitcher. Molly contributed at the frosh-soph level last year.

"They don't throw a gazillion miles per hour but they hit their spots," coach Bejaran said. "They should do pretty good."

Central Valley fielded the most improved team in the VOL in 2009, increasing its win total from the previous season by five games while finishing in fifth place.

The Hawks had a combined record of 1-27 during the previous two campaigns.

"It's going to be a challenge," Manny said. "It's a rebuilding year. We just have to work a little harder."

Bejaran and Evans coached travel softball together in the past. The duo assisted Veronica Giddens at Central Valley last year.

"I've pretty much learned everything from Bill," coach Bejaran said. "He's a great teacher."