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- Updated: March 9, 2012
There’s seemingly no limit to the heights Sierra-Manteca softball can climb behind its young talent and all-state pitcher.
By MITCH STEPHENS | Contributor
It had all unfolded perhaps too easily for Sierra High School’s softball team.
A young squad with one senior starter, the Timberwolves had won 25 of 27 games including a tie, and rolled over three Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV foes with an unbeatable combination of dominating pitching, crisp sure-proof defense and timely hitting.
But then with its first section championship a victory away, nerves struck. Or perhaps complacency.
Sierra committed three errors and managed five measly singles in a 4-1 loss to Los Banos in the championship round. Because it had defeated Los Banos earlier, a deciding game was to be played immediately after, and Timberwolves’ coach Nick Olmo gathered his girls.
“I told them we could hang our head and hope for the best or we could stay positive, play hard, reset the clock and do it our way,” he said.
Sierra opted for the later and rolled to a 6-0 win in the nightcap to finish off a banner 26-2-1 season.
Frank Sinatra would have been proud.
Beyond the first SJS crown, the Timberwolves finished No. 25 in the state and 59th in the country, according to MaxPreps.com. They outscored opponents 182-37, hit .396 as a team, stole more than four bases per game and had a team ERA of 0.40.
“Pretty darned good year,” Olmo said. “All their hard work paid off.”
Now, what will the Timberwolves do for an encore?
Considering all but three seniors return and that the junior varsity team went 24-2 last season, the future looks extremely bright.
“The kids haven’t rested on their laurels at all,” Olmo said. “The girls have worked extremely hard. Our defense looks exceptional. And, it doesn’t hurt that we have one of the best pitchers in the state.”
Considering Allison Walljasper already has a full-ride secured to LSU, and she’s only a sophomore, “one of the best in the state,” might be an understatement.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander went 26-2-1 last season as a freshman with 252 strikeouts in 162 innings. She also posted a .479 batting average with 12 doubles, two triples and three home runs.
She helped lead the San Jose Sting Amateur Softball Association (ASA) team to an 14U national title the summer of 2010. Now at age 15, Walljasper is on the Sting’s 18U Gold team along with Sierra teammates, second baseman Sommer Wilson and outfielder Iyana Hughes.
“Off the field (Walljasper) is like any other 15-year-old kid,” Olmo said. “She hangs out with her friends, jokes around. But put her on the field and she has serious game. She’s very serious and dedicated to her sport and position.”
All the attention and honors she has earned hasn’t gone to her head, said Olmo, who is in his sixth season as head coach.
“She’s handled it all very well,” he said. “She does numerous interviews and speaks with many coaches, so none of it really fazes her. … At the same time, she’s not intimidated by the attention. It’s just what she needs to do.”
Walljasper didn’t get rattled by the loss in the SJS final. She didn’t panic or point fingers. She went out for Game 2 and fired a two-hitter with nine strikeouts and recorded her 13th shutout and third of the postseason.
Walljasper said the experience of playing at a high level at ASA really helped.
“After winning the national championship, I came into high school really confident,” she told the Manteca Bulletin. “I wasn’t going to let my team down (in the SJS title game). I was going into the last game thinking that I had to just give it my all. That was our chance to win a section championship, which our team had never come close to doing before. … Winning it was an awesome feeling.”
Facing Walljasper leaves more of a queasy sensation.
She throws with college velocity — Olmo said 61-62 mph — and she throws all the other pitches effectively: change-up, curve, rise and drop.
“She’s such a big, tall kid. By the time she’s done with the windup and lands on the ground she’s pretty much right in your face,” he said. “It’s got to be very intimidating.”
Not easy to catch either.
That’s the duty of sophomore Lexus Barnes, who also was the team’s starting catcher as a freshman. Barnes wasn’t on the year-round track last season and it was a big adjustment trying to handle a pitcher with college velocity.
Barnes handled it extremely well, Olmo said, and expects even better things from her this season. She hit .438 as a freshman and should bat in the No. 4 or 5 spot this season.
With Wilson out until April with a knee injury, Barnes and Walljasper are the only full-time infield starters returning. But Olmo likes what he sees in the early going.
The Timberwolves opened with a 7-0 win over Ceres on Feb. 27 as Walljasper fired a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts, Hughes went 3-for-3 with three runs, Barnes had two hits and two RBI and senior outfielder Lily Gonsalez hit a home run.
“We’re very proud of what we accomplished last year but honestly, we’re trying not to dwell on it,” Olmo said. “This is a new year, a new team and a lot of new girls.”
At three infield spots, the Timberwolves will platoon, at least in the early going. At first, seniors Brianne Lenoci and Shelby Shirron will split time until Wilson returns. Katelyn Salsedo and Elena Flores, a pair of juniors, will share the second base spot.
At third, part-time starter Jessica Lopez returns after a solid junior season when she hit .300. She’ll share time with Gabby Olmo (Nick’s daughter), who starred on the JV team last season along with new shortstop Gianna Lenoci, the sophomore sister of Brianne.
Gianna replaces All-Area standout Daylynn Penner, who hit .515 last season with 47 hits.
“Gianna is fast and confident and has shown a lot of poise,” Olmo said. “All of our girls will come in and contribute. We won’t ever carry more than 13 or 14 on the roster. When they get to this level, I want them to be ready.”
The team has experience across the outfield. In left, Gonsalez isn’t very big – only 5-1 – but she possesses a ton of power. In center, leadoff hitter Hughes causes havoc for defenses. The junior southpaw batted .337 as a sophomore with six doubles, four triples and a homer. In right field, junior Katelynn Perkins is comparable to Hughes defensively.
The Timberwolves look forward to the return of Wilson, a junior who tore her ACL over the summer. Wilson made All-State teams as a sophomore when she hit .505 with six doubles, four triples and five home runs.
“That’s a big bat to lose,” Olmo said. “We’re very hopeful for her return in April and consider it an added bonus.”
Not that the Timberwolves need one.
Mitch Stephens is a national columnist for MaxPreps.com.