In areas of the country where travel ball teams are ubiquitous, Little League softball struggles with numbers and participation.
Girls start off in T-ball and stay with their local rec/comp team before hooking up with a stronger travel ball squad by the time they’re 10 or 11. Gilroy Little League softball faces those same issues, but they’ve been around for a long time, have enjoyed tremendous success over the years and look to build up its league once again.
The success of Gilroy’s Minors and Junior All Star teams this past season give hope to those in the Gilroy Little League organization that the best is yet to come. The Minors team, ages 8-10, managed by Eric Lopez, lost in Sectionals in Martinez.
The Junior squad, ages 12-14, managed by George Pula, advanced to the NorCal Regionals in Natomas, just outside of Sacramento. Its roster includes Nevaeh Arias, Isabelle Barone, Bailey Carreiro, Breanna Castro, Ayana Durante-Kobertz, Nevaeh Espinoza, Frances Harney, Kiley Lira, Chanel Lucio, Jada Lujan, Nevaeh Niffenegger, Isha Patel, and Chloe Smith. Assistant coaches include Chris Niffenegger and Bill Carreiro.
The Minors roster includes Delila Bustinza, Melanie Nieblas, Sophia Rivera, Hilda Rivera Lustre, Stella Robles, Sophia Vasquez, Zaniyah Luna, Lily Escobar, Maia Mah, Margarita Barradas Yardley, Gianna Swann, Russelle Zamora, Isabella Parral, and Natalie Lopez. The assistant coaches include Carlos Escobar and Scott Swann.
Pula was proud of his players for overcoming adversity. Gilroy had to go out of league to get competition, battling teams from Fremont and the Morgan Hill Spirit.
“Our director Caroline (Martinez) did a great job of finding those games,” Pula said.
Gilroy went 7-1 before advancing straight to the NorCal Regionals July 9-10, where it went 0-2.
“The girls did the best they could,” Pula said. “It was a great experience and a great end to our season facing some stiff competition.”
Pula said to watch out for Castro, who played shortstop but also filled in at catcher during the NorCal Regionals in 100-degree temperatures.
“Breanna toughed it out and did it with a great attitude,” Pula said. “She’ll have a chance to compete for a varsity spot next year as a freshman (at Christopher High). She’s that good.”
Pula said Lujan displayed great all-around skills, Barone hit a home run in Regionals and Lira was a reliable workhorse-type pitcher this season.
“Kiley is fearless, regardless of the situation,” he said. “Our defense was good because of her pitching.”
Lucio, a pitcher/utility, also was a standout player. Similar to the Junior team, the Minors All Stars had a solid season which culminated in the Section Tournament where it went 0-2. Before landing a spot in Sectionals, Gilroy played Almaden and Morgan Hill in regular-season action.
Gilroy was able to farm two Minors teams during its league season, and out of that 12 players were selected to the All Star squad. Lopez was proud of how much improvement the girls showed from the beginning of the season to the end.
“They learned a lot, blossomed and became better ball players,” he said. “They showed up and played their toughest in Sectionals.”
Bustinza, Mah and Escobar all split time at catcher, each possessing unique skills like a strong arm or ability to stroke powerful hits. Parral played second base and hit leadoff, Lustre was in right field and Natalie Lopez could zero in on pitches well because of a “great batting eye,” Eric Lopez said.
Nieblas was a power hitting third baseman, while Rivera and Russelle both pitched and played shortstop. Swann was dominant at times in the circle and a fantastic all-around player, Lopez said.
Vasquez played second and Yardley gained accolades for her work ethic and had a couple of extra-base hits in Regionals. Luna brought an intense focus to the team.
“Zaniyah was tiny but fierce,” Lopez said. “A great ball player who could play every possible position.”
Pula and Lopez said they both loved their time coaching softball this season, knowing it made a difference. Because of the glut of teams and the amount of time the job requires, finding head coaches/managers for a summer can be difficult.
“I enjoyed it because you get a chance to teach a group of girls learning softball and at the same time putting time back in the community,” Pula said.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]