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2002 All-Imperial Valley Press Softball

June 26, 2002|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

The Southwest High School softball team's rise to the top of the local softball scene was one most people did not see coming.

The past two years Southwest — which won Imperial Valley League championships in 1998 and '99 — had wallowed in mediocrity, nothing more than another team on the schedule of the Imperial Valley's top contenders.

During that stretch, Eagle coach Stephanie Niebla was taking care of a sleeping softball giant about to awaken.

In her third year as Southwest head coach, Niebla guided her young squad, which only fielded one senior last season, to the CIF San Diego Section Division III championship game.

Going 10-2 in IVL, Niebla's club won its first league championship since 1999 and finished 20-9 overall (3-1 in the playoffs), losing the championship match to Serra High of San Diego 2-0.

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That performance has earned Niebla the Imperial Valley Press coach of the year award.

"We had a really good season. After a lot of rebuilding and a lot of hard work, it all finally paid off," said Niebla. "I told myself that the main goal for the season was to get to the CIF finals, and that's something we accomplished. I wasn't satisfied with just making it the semis. We had to make it to the finals."

Niebla's squad was in position to win the championship, but a couple of errors cost it the game. Still, Niebla already has put that behind her and is looking toward the 2003 season.

"I know these girls are hungry to go again. We just have to work toward our goals and take one game at a time," said she said. "Looking at next season, we're not going to change much. But our girls still have to play good ball and just play the way they know how and play at their level.

"Most importantly, they can't go into games with big heads based on what they did this year," Niebla added.

In the Division III championship, Southwest started seven underclassmen, including a designated hitter.

Leading the bunch was freshman pitcher Melissa Lerno, who earns the Imperial Valley Press player of the year honor.

In 2002 Lerno had 112 strikeouts and a 0.85 ERA. In 24 of 27 appearances she allowed no earned runs. In IVL she had a 0.56 ERA with 56 Ks, also no earned runs. In the postseason Lerno was even tougher, not allowing a single earned run in the four games.

Lerno did well at the plate, too, finishing with a .333 batting average, 25 runs, 20 RBI and eight doubles.

"I thought we had a pretty good year, but I wasn't satisfied with it, coming in second place (in Division III)," said the 14-year-old Lerno. "For me, like I've said before and like I'll keep on saying, I'm not playing for individual awards. Yeah, it's cool to get them, but I play for the team to win. That's all that matters to me."

Said Niebla of Lerno: "She's just one of those players that you know is there to play 100 percent softball. You see it in her, and you see that fire in her, and you see that she wants to be the best and isn't satisfied with just doing OK. No matter what, she's not going to give up without a fight."

The Eagles also have three players named to the Press' first and second teams.

Jessica Conway and the team's only senior, Melissa Frausto, get the nod, while freshman Nikki Cordova earns second-team honors.

Joining Conway and Frausto on the first team are Brawley Union High's Erin Rutherford and Leighan Sudduth, Central's Nicky Carrion and Clarissa Maldonado, Holtville's Michelle Strahm and Imperial's Amy Holtz and Melanie Medina.

The Press' pitcher of the year honor goes to Holtville's Lauren Huyler.

Huyler finished with a Valley-leading 167 strikeouts and a 1.13 ERA. She led the Vikings to a 14-7 overall record and a 7-5 mark in IVL, which tied the team for third with Imperial.

"Softball is definitely a pitcher's game, but the game isn't only about the pitcher. There's nine positions on the team and I just fill one," said Huyler, 17, a senior. "I think I had a pretty good year, but everyone else on the team deserves most of the credit because the year we had was more of a team effort."

On the Press' second team are Brawley's Trisha Fleming, Calexico's Linda Mendoza, Central's Claudia Maldonado and Marissa Guzman, the Vikings' Claudia Lopez and the Tigers' Rhea Deal, Lindsay Lugo and Stephanie Ortega.

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