Experienced beyond their years

Del Oro returns 10 to the diamond from last year’s section runner-up squad
By: Eric J. Gourley Journal Sports Writer
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LOOMIS — Just because a team is young doesn’t by definition mean it’s inexperienced. The Del Oro High softball team is a perfect example. The Golden Eagles won their first Sierra Foothill League title since 2002 last year, surprising perennial league powers en route to an appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title game. They went 23-8 despite featuring only three seniors on the roster. Several players who started as freshmen and sophomores last season return as seasoned veterans this spring. “We’re young, but we’re very experienced,” said sophomore shortstop Whitney Smith, who already has five hits in 12 at-bats this season and figures to carry Del Oro’s offense again. “We didn’t think we were going to make it that far last year, and we still have a lot of potential.” The Eagles (3-1) are building around an impressive nucleus that includes SFL MVP Savannah Pingree, who had a .54 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 181 innings as a junior. The top half of the batting order is virtually unchanged, too. Returning all-league third baseman Hannah George, a sophomore is a tough out in the leadoff spot. “She has a knack for coming back to the dugout and telling you what she saw,” co-head coach Sean Erickson said. “Even if she didn’t touch it, she’s telling you. She has a good aptitude for it.” Sophomore Jordan Courage, an all-league second baseman and No. 2 pitcher, bats second. Smith, who hit .357 last season, is a power hitter in the third spot. She smacked a two-run single up the middle last Saturday to lead Del Oro past Whitney in walkoff fashion. Pingree bats cleanup when she’s not pitching, and senior Annette Merjano, a returning all-league player, has accepted the role of designated hitter “without being overly frustrated,” Erickson said. Junior catcher Aspen Echelmeier and junior left fielder Ciera Clark also have potent bats for the Eagles. Freshman Hanna Miller joins sophomores Carissa Cotter and Paige McKim from last season’s league champion JV squad as speedy, athletic standouts in the outfield. “The best thing about it is right now they’re still coming together,” said Erickson, who came to Del Oro from Rocklin in 1999. “They’re not on the same page yet. We’re still improving, and we’ve gotten as far as we’ve gotten already. We look across the table and we can see ourselves going miles further and everyone’s telling us how far we’ve come, yet we feel like the road’s only half-traveled.” The Eagles were blanked by three-time defending Division II champion Oak Ridge in the section championship last year, and they’re looking for something to mount on the back of their remodeled dugout this season. “We are a team that has no excuses other than our own fault if we don’t get it done and I tell them that all the time,” Erickson said. “The pressure’s on you. The bulls-eye is here.” Winning the ultra-competitive SFL is always the first step. “That comes first,” Pingree said. “We expect nothing less of ourselves than to make it to the section title game and win the section title game, but we want to win the SFL title first. We have to take it game-by-game.” Still, seven-time section champion Del Oro has high expectations of itself. “Our expectation is to be in that championship game,” Courage said. “If we play good games and hold our own, we’ll be there.”