A roster loaded with talented underclassmen has Bear River chasing a sixth SJS title
By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor
Youth is not necessarily wasted on the young.
The Bear River softball team has just two seniors on the roster, but veteran coach Duane Zauner’s young Bruins are far from inexperienced.
“Last year, most of our practices and teaching were all about technique and learning plays and how we do things,” Zauner said. “I have more confidence in this group now to make the plays and they have the confidence, too, because they have the experience now.”
In 2014, Bear River posted a 20-8-1 overall record, claimed a share of the program’s third straight Pioneer Valley League championship and advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals where it came within one strike of playing for the section title. And they did it with a roster dominated by underclassmen — four sophomores and two freshmen played in most, if not all, of the team’s games.
Zauner and the Bruins relied heavily on the pitching of sophomore Nerissa Long and worked to manufacture runs while fighting to keep opposing base runners from scoring. Long finished the season with an 18-6 record and 0.85 earned run average while striking out a section-best 277 batters in just 164 innings.
“Last year, we lived off pitching,” Zauner said. “She could get 12 or 13 strikeouts and it would work.”
This year, Bear River is hopeful the team will not need Long to dominate for the team to claim its first SJS title since the Bruins won the 2012 Div. III crown. The program also won four consecutive Div. IV titles from 2007-2010 under Zaun. Courtney and Stephanie Ceo, Katie Mathis, Kenzie Billings and Alyssa Reina all raised section banners and established the small school in Grass Valley as a big-time softball powerhouse.
“Stepping on the field is different this year because most of the players know what’s expected of them and know what to do,” Long said. “Most of us have varsity experience and have been working real hard.”
The Bruins are still young — catcher Mikayla Laymance and second baseman Hope Ferri are the lone seniors on the roster. But five underclassmen already have varsity experience, and only freshman Kaitlyn Maddux is among the few players unfamiliar with Zauner’s system and techniques.
The majority of the starting lineup features returning players, which bodes well for improvement on defense and at the plate. However, the Bruins’ primary strength still lies in their pitching. Long is a workhorse and Zauner has the rare added benefit of three additional pitchers to spell his ace when needed.
“I have never had four pitchers,” said Zauner, who is in his 20th season as the school’s softball coach, “but it all starts with Nerissa and Mikayla. They have a demeanor and effort that helps everyone.”
The Bruins’ battery is back for its third year together, and the benefits of veteran leadership at the pitcher and catcher positions go beyond the numbers. The girls are neighbors and longtime friends who take their roles as team leaders on and off the field very seriously. Both are three-year starters, and both understand the importance of welcoming and accepting underclassmen who can help make the roster stronger. Zauner has always had freshmen players with significant roles and playing time, and he has been fortunate to have veteran players willing to mentor them.
“The girls in the program have seen the leadership from the Ceos sisters and others and pass it along,” Zauner said. “Our seniors have always been accepting of
“I don’t have to do a lot of team-building exercises because I have had leaders that bring the players together and make sure that they are a team.”
This year’s team has high expectations, including a fourth straight PVL title and the program’s sixth SJS championship. Despite losing Rachel Last, who graduated in June after leading the Bruins with a .398 batting average, 37 hits and 11 stolen bases, Bear River has plenty of offense back. Zauner expects improvement with a more seasoned lineup.
Long and Laymance both batted .395 in 2014, and Long led the team with four home runs and 22 RBI. Outfielder Arielle Koerber, who batted fourth as a freshman, hit .329 and drove in 21 runs. She may move up in the order to allow Zauner to insert Laymance in the cleanup slot. Laymance struck out just 10 times in 2014, and Zauner wants to use her ability to make contact in order to allow the speed players at the top of the lineup to steal bases and score runs. The coach expects the 2015 batting order to force opposing defenses to make plays to stop the Bruins.
“I think that we are going to be better at putting the ball in play,” the coach said. “It is so important to a team’s success to make the opponent pitch it, catch it and throw it.”
On the defensive side, Bear River should be improved as well. Which is good, because it already had the confidence of the Bruins’ pitcher.
The job anticipated by Zauner and his players is also expected from school and community. Despite a shrinking student body, the school is expected to succeed on the playing field, especially a program with the rich history of Bear River softball. It’s a history that includes five section titles and has sent numerous players to college to continue their softball careers on scholarship.
“I have a banner (pennant) from each of the colleges where past players have gone off to play college softball, and I have all of the team pictures up in my office from the past (19) years I have coached,” Zauner said. “They see what has happened in the past and they understand that they are being challenged.
“With challenge, there is opportunity to rise to the challenge.”
Rising to the challenge is what the Bruins’ young roster expects to do. After all, youth is a terrible thing to waste.
“I think that this year will be easier because we went through a lot of the growing process last year,” Laymance said. “We expect to do much better because we have so much talent and have built an impressive amount of chemistry.”