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A “Rebuilding Year” Didn’t Cool Off Mission Viejo Softball. Will Any Opponent Have An Answer For The Diablos In 2017?

Story By Mark Tennis | Photos By Patrick Takkinen/SoCalSidelines.com

If you are building an elite high school program in any sport — especially one that is nationally-ranked virtually every year — perhaps the biggest hurdle is staying at that elite level even once a dominating group of seniors graduates.

Co-head coaches Troy Ybarra and Toni Mascarenas of the Mission Viejo High softball team and their program cleared that hurdle easily last season.

And this time, the graduates were minimal. Which means bad news for Diablos opponents in 2017. It also means Mission Viejo begins the year No. 1 in both the Cal-Hi Sports state rankings and the FloSoftball.com preseason national rankings.

Entering last season, the Diablos were thought to be in a bit of a rebuilding season. After all, they had lost 2015 Ms. Softball State Player of the Year Taylor McQuillin to the University of Arizona, as well as Ms. Softball State Player of the Year finalist Alyssa Palomino also to the Wildcats. Both players also posted career pitching (McQuillin) and hitting (Palomino) totals that put them into the state record book.

While there were more losses than the previous two seasons combined, the Diablos (27-4) did not rebuild. They won the CIF Southern Section Division II title with a 9-6 win over Valley View-Moreno Valley and moved up to No. 1 in the final state rankings, thus earning their second State Team of the Year honor in three seasons.

If it weren’t for a 1-0 upset loss in the same title game to Yucaipa in 2015, we’d be writing about Mission Viejo as being State Team of the Year three straight seasons. With McQuillin and Palomino leading the way, the Diablos went 26-1 in 2014 and were No. 1 in the state and nation. In their senior seasons, they were rolling along at 30-0 and were No. 1 in the state and nation before running into Yucaipa, a team they had beaten twice earlier that year.

Cameron Ybarra was the Cal-Hi Sports State Junior of the Year after batting .514 with 12 home runs and 33 runs scored last season.

“The kids that came back last season really felt that one loss from the year before,” said Ybarra, who has been coaching at Mission Viejo for 17 years with 15 on the varsity and 10 as a co-head coach. “Finishing 31-0 was something they really wanted to accomplish. But in that game we just didn’t get a break.

“In softball, you play your best and in the big games against the top teams there’s always a break, a bloop single here, a spinning ball there. It just didn’t happen on that day.”

Last season, it wasn’t necessarily a break like that which enabled Mission Viejo to go to the top of the state rankings. The break came after a win over Valley View in the Div. II section final when Mater Dei-Santa Ana met up with Lutheran-Orange in the Div. I section championship. Lutheran was in the No. 1 position of the state rankings entering the night, but the Monarchs took advantage of seeing Lancers’ ace Maddy Dwyer three times earlier in the season and posted a surprisingly one-sided 8-2 victory.

“When you lose players like Taylor and Alyssa, who were such a big part of your success, you also know that everybody has to step it up,” Ybarra said. “From 1 through 9 in the order, it was a different player with big hit in every game. It was somebody’s turn this day, somebody else’s the next.”

Ybarra’s youngest daughter, Camryn, did emerge as one of the leaders in her junior season. Hitting in the leadoff position, Ybarra came through with a .514 batting average. She also led the team with 12 homers and scored 33 runs. By the end of the season, Camryn was named the Orange County Player of the Year and also the State Junior Player of the Year.

“I just think we followed the same footsteps from the year before,” said Camryn, who will play next at Oregon State. “We did what we were told, followed the same example and tried to do exactly the same things.”

Louisville-signee Kyra Snyder returns to the circle for her senior year.

This season, of course, the expectations are as high as when McQuillin and Palomino were entering their senior years.

“No, I don’t think there’s extra pressure,” Camryn Ybarra said. “It’s the same goals, same bonding of teammates, trying to have fun.”

Ybarra’s own teammates this year include two others who were on the All-State Underclass team — junior catcher Terra McGowan and senior pitcher/first baseman Kyra Snyder. Committed to Arizona State, McGowan led the 2016 squad with 32 RBI and 10 home runs. Snyder was an All-Orange County pitcher who hit .373 and is headed to Louisville.

“Another year of playing for the Corona Angels (travel team) should really help her,” Ybarra said of his daughter. “She’s matured so much and has been bringing that into the dugout every day. One thing about Camryn is she will take all of the experience she’s had, good or bad, and learn from it.”

Also returning to bat in the No. 2 position behind Ybarra is junior outfielder Olivia Viggiano, who is the team’s best slap-hitter. University of Illinois-bound outfielder Bella Loya is also back.

The difference between the two preseasons, however, is that while Camryn is a bonafide All-American and State Player of the Year candidate, McQuillin and Palomino were even more highly regarded because of their dominating statistics and status as elite national recruits. McQuillin and Palomino’s team also didn’t have to consider playing in what may be the most loaded high school softball playoff bracket in national history.

That’s because this year, as in all other sports, the CIF Southern Section is going to competitive equity-based playoff divisions. It’s not quite the same as the CIF Open Division in some state playoffs, but it does guarantee that just about every top-ranked CIFSS softball team is going to be in the Division I bracket.

It certainly won’t be the same as last season when state-ranked teams like Mission Viejo, Valley View, La Habra and Oaks Christian-Westlake Village were Div. II with Grand Terrace in Div. III, and Orange Lutheran, Mater Dei, Los Alamitos and Norco all in Div. I. They’ll all be Div. I this season, creating a landmine of dangerous opponents throughout the 32-team bracket.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” Troy Ybarra said. “It really will be 32 of the best teams in the nation in the same division. And it’s going to come down to coaching and wanting to have your kids healthy at the end of the season.”

Camryn Ybarra fires a throw to first base during 2016 action.

Coach Ybarra added that many CIFSS Div. I coaches may mix up their pitching assignments throughout the season so that certain possible playoff opponents don’t get to face No.1 pitchers more than once beforehand.

“Kyra may not start some games,” he said. “You want to win all these games, but we could play La Habra two times before the playoffs, and we played Los Alamitos three times last season. You might have to give up a game here and there because the goal is to give your team the best chance at the end.”

If Snyder doesn’t pitch, the two arms that Ybarra may go to first are junior right-hander Taylor Ward and junior left-hander Hailey Johnston.

After his daughter, VIggiano, McGowan, Loya and Snyder, Ybarr’s projected order will consist of junior outfielder Peyton Cody, senior shortstop Sammy Dees, senior third base Allison Rawls, junior left-fielder Alyssa Haynes, and sophomore Taylor Deden as designated player.

That’s more of a lineup, however, designed by Mascarenas than Ybarra. A former all-state pitcher at Pacifica-Garden Grove and a member of an NCAA title team at Arizona. Mascarenas and Ybarra have specific roles in their co-coaching duties. Ybarra handles situations during games: Defense, baserunning, calling pitches and coaches at third base. Mascarenas handles discipline, daily competition, live batting practice and conditioning.

“She also helps the kids get surrounded by Olympians and that has really helped,” Ybarra said. “Competing in practice also has brought a lot out of the girls. There are consequences in practice if you don’t hustle, if you don’t play with discipline. It seems like how we’re doing this is working out so far.”

After opening the season with three nonleague games, the season kicks into high gear March 9-11 when the Diablos play in the 21st annual Dave Kops Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Ariz.. Southern California teams have tended to meet in the finals, but championship teams from Northern California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and elsewhere are entered as well. Later tournament stops include the Michelle Carew Classic and the Best of the West. After all that, plus South Coast League games, comes the CIFSS Division I playoffs.

In the end, Mission Viejo may not be No. 1 in the state and No. 1 in the nation. But it also may be hard to argue that the girls didn’t just play one of the toughest schedules any team in California has ever faced.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and managing editor of Cal-Hi Sports.  

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