After a strong preseason start, the Sonora Wildcats are eager to begin their Valley Oak League season on March 20 vs. Manteca.
ON WEDNESDAY, Sonora star catcher Jenna Kirk works out with her teammates in preparation for the upcoming VOL season. Kirk, a senior, earned First-Team All-Area honors last year and has committed to play her college softball at George Fox University in Oregon. MAGGIE BECK/UNION DEMOCRAT
“I think we are definitely a better team than last year,” said Wildcats senior star catcher Jenna Kirk. “We’ve gained a lot of girls that have a lot of potential.”
Last season, Sonora was 10-15 overall and 3-11 in VOL play, tied for sixth place.
“I think we can rank pretty decent in our league this season,” said pitcher Carly Standers. “We’d like to finish at least fourth in our league.”
And should Sonora hang around fourth place for a while during the upcoming season ... well, perhaps a break or two goes the Wildcats way, they bump up to second or third ... and then contend for a coveted position in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships.
“We have really good camaraderie on this team,” said Wildcats third baseman Michaela Emerald. “That can take you a long way and so I think we’ll do really well this year.”
On Tuesday, Sonora played perennial-softball powerhouse Calaveras close, ultimately losing 4-3.
“We held our own against a very good team and did even better than we had expected,” said Emerald. “We feel optimistic.”
One reason for Sonora’s added optimism is Emerald’s move to the hot corner.
“Michaela is not afraid of anything at third base and that’s so important to a team,” says Kirk. “Michaela is a natural middle infielder, so she’s being a trooper for us moving to third. We need here there. That ball shoots out there so fast and Michaela can handle it.”
Sonora starts Elise Amend at shortstop and Katie Ditler at second. Both have quick-as-cat reflexes and neither enjoys leaving the ballpark unless their uniforms are thoroughly dirty.
“Katie and Elise will both dive after anything,” said Kirk. “They both have great range. They’re both very talented and Katie is loud on that field — letting everyone know what the situation is.”
Cassidy Knowles, 5-foot-9, starts at first base.
“Having a tall first baseman with talent like Cassidy helps us a lot,” said Kirk. “She’s already saved us a few times over there.”
Sonora has plenty of talent manning the outfield. Sammi Knowles, Marsades Brown, Jamie Wooten and Alana Gookin have all shown early promise.
Last year, Standers started quite a few games in the circle. This year, Mahalia “Mo” Ford is handling starting duties and Standers is now the fireman.
“I love being the closer!” beamed Standers. “You get to play with the batter’s heads when you’re the closer. They somehow think you’re no good because you’re coming in as a relief pitcher.”
But Standers is good. Very good.
“Carly thows fast,” said Emerald. “She’s very smart, very spirited and can overpower a hitter.”
“I think a big strength of mine now is location,” said Standers.
“It’s a new thing for us — Mo starting and Carly coming in there for relief — and it’s working,” said Kirk. “It’s nice that we have two good pitchers. Mo is very consistent and has a good drop-ball which is getting a lot of girls out now.
“Carly has a very strong curve. She was fooling Calaveras like crazy with that pitch. But I think Carly’s biggest quality is she keeps her composure no matter what. She’s got this straight face like a soldier. Nothing will bother her — ever.”
Of course the unquestioned marquee player on Sonora is Kirk, a 2011 First-Team All-Area honoree.
This is Kirk’s fourth year on varsity and she has already dismissed one potential distraction — college.
Kirk has already committed to play next year for Division III George Fox University (Newberg, OR.).
“Making that decision early takes the stress off your shoulders,” explained Kirk. “I don’t have any worries about recruiting or having college scouts watching you or travel ball. I can totally concentrate on our Sonora Wildcats season this spring.”
“Jenna is a really advanced, intelligent softball player,” said Emerald. “She recognizes situations and knows what needs to be done and when to do it. She’s always there to help all of us.”
“As a pitcher,” said Standers, “it’s so comforting to have Jenna behind the plate. Jenna brings everything to the table for this team. She knows everything about this game. She’s our best player, we rely on her and, of course, we love having her on our team.”