With graduation taking its toll and a rare injury sidelining one of its best players, Pilot Rock's dominance of the Eastern Oregon League West Division may be in jeopardy.
The Rockets, who have won three consecutive EOL West Division titles, graduated first-team pitcher Jo Pedro and are without Allison Robles, who is recovering from surgery to repair her lower left femur.
Although a talented core of youthful girls are taking over vacated positions in Pilot Rock, Weston-McEwen has moved over to the West Division, and there's also two up-and-coming teams - Heppner and Echo/Stanfield - that should challenge the Rockets.
"You have to watch out for Stanfield," Pilot Rock coach Rick Hoisington said. "With Weston-McEwen on our side and Heppner, it will be tough going."
Culver is an unknown to a majority of coaches around the EOL, but Weston-McEwen coach Jeff Griggs said the league will bear parity.
"Pilot Rock has the tradition, and until they get beat, they are the team to beat," Griggs said. "I think the top three or four teams are going to be pretty competitive with each other."
Heppner has several freshmen that coach Petra Elguezabal hopes will make a difference, but she also said it will be an all-out battle to make the postseason.
"It will be pretty balanced," Elguezabal said. "Pilot Rock, obviously, will be good and Weston-McEwen, along with Stanfield, return several All-Stars."
CULVER - Third-year coach Jack Layton said his team has the capabilities of making a run at the EOL regular-season title.
One of the main reasons coach Layton is optimistic about the upcoming EOL season is the fact sophomore pitcher Tiffany Adams, who received EOL honorable mention recognition last season, is returning.
"She has good control and can throw up to 60 miles per hour," Layton said of Adams. "It's going to be a battle for the playoffs, but we have goals to try and win the league."
Coach Layton also pointed to Ronnie Montes (catcher), Jessica Calderon (third base), Codie Poore (second base), Kyni Wofford (shortstop), Kelsea Lang (first base) and Kayla Henson (center field) as players who will make a big impact with the team's success this spring.
Calderon was named an honorable mention infielder last spring.
"Several kids return to give us experience at key positions," Layton said. "I expect some good things from this team."
Culver welcomes Umatilla on Tuesday for an EOL doubleheader.
STANFIELD - Echo/Stanfield returns arguably the best pitcher in the conference in sophomore pitcher Ashley Martinez.
Martinez, who was named an EOL first-team hurler a year ago, had a 16-7 record last season and led the Cougars to the district tournament, where it was upended by Pine Eagle.
"She looks really good so far," Echo/Stanfield coach Misty Ducre said. "She will be a big key to the success of our team."
Three-year starters Mazie Madison (first base), Ali McQuain (second base), Amanda Morris (third base) and Catherine Zielke (catcher) anchor the team's infield.
Morris and Madison earned EOL honorable mention honors for their efforts last season.
Bridgette Packard and Kim Davis will share time at shortstop.
"I think our infield is pretty strong with several girls that bring experience," Ducre said. "This is our third year of having a program, so a lot of these girls are still learning a lot, but are more confident this season."
Nanci Sandoval, who earned EOL first-team outfield honors last season, returns to the outfield alongside Kim Packard, Tiffany Buechler and Jackie Caldera.
"We want to return to the district playoffs," Ducre said. "We know it's not going to be easy, but I think we have the girls to do it."
Newcomers include Saudi Iberra, Katelyn Jordan and Melissa Moss.
Echo/Stanfield (8-2) opens EOL West Division play on Tuesday, hosting Weston-McEwen.
HEPPNER - There are three new reasons why coach Petra Elguezabal is excited for the upcoming EOL season.
The third-year coach has three freshman pitchers, giving Heppner depth in the pitching circle, which is an area the Mustangs have lacked the past few seasons.
"We're very young, but at the same time, we have three freshman pitchers that are working hard to give us strength at a position that we haven't had a lot of depth," Elguezabal said. "We're excited because we also have several returning players to go with our young players."
First-team EOL designated hitter Heather Yocum returns for the Mustangs and hit just over .400 last season. Heppner also returns honorable mention infielder Krystal Nairns (first base). Nairns hit over .300 last spring and is back with the varsity team for the third season along with Yocum.
Lyndi Patton returns as the team's shortstop, and Regi Setiz is back at third base. Second base will be a rotating position, filled mostly by pitchers, who aren't throwing.
"I think our mental errors will go down in the infield because the girls are more experienced," Elguezabal said. "It will be important for our young pitchers to have an infield to back them up."
Chelsey Betsinger makes the move from right field to left field this season. Afton Betsinger will play right, and the only senior on the team, Emily Bergstrom, will see time in the outfield as well. The Mustangs will be without EOL first-team outfielder Madison Bailey, who suffered a knee injury during basketball season.
"Our goal is to make district playoffs," Elguezabal said. "If our pitchers can stay healthy and we cut down on our mental errors, I think we'll have a chance."
Heppner (0-1) travels to Pilot Rock on Tuesday for an EOL twinbill.
Pilot Rock Rockets
PILOT ROCK - If Pilot Rock wants to repeat as West Division champions, it will do so with a youthful pitching staff.
The Rockets graduated Jo Pedro, who went 18-0 in EOL play last season, and turn to Andrea Pedro, Caren McLaren and Christina Barkley to fill the void in the pitching circle.
"This is a staff that will gain with each game," Pilot Rock coach Rick Hoisington said. "Andrea brings the most experience as she pitched some as a freshman last year, but I think Caren will be a big surprise, and Christina has a variety of pitches."
EOL honorable mention selection Jennifer Ulrich returns at first base, while Whitney Hoisington and Becky Schiller will work second. Schiller will also see time at shortstop, and there's a chance that Robles, who earned EOL first-team infielder honors last season, could return at shortstop.
"It's about 80 percent that she will not play, but the doctors will make a decision later this month," Hoisington said of Robles, who had surgery in December to repair her damaged lower left femur.
At third base, Tabatha Gambill and Haley Kannard will see time, and 2004 EOL first-team catcher Hannah Kirk returns.
In the outfield, Christina Kinney (left), Rachel Howard (center) and Amanda Winnett (right) will see a majority of the action. Howard did not play last year, recovering from knee surgery, but she earned EOL All-Star honors her freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Offensively, Kirk led the Rockets with a .367 batting average and Kinney (.362), along with Whitney Hoisington (.343), swung the aluminum well last season. For her efforts, Kinney was named an EOL first-team designated hitter.
Pilot Rock hosts Heppner in an EOL doubleheader on Tuesday.
UMATILLA - Coming off a seven-win season, Umatilla coach Cindy Roxbury returns 10 players and anticipates a much-improved season.
"Our base running and hitting are improving," Roxbury said. "We're working on being aggressive on the base paths."
The Vikings have two new pitchers in Deven Roxbury and Monica Rodriguez. Aleah Phillips, who will play shortstop, will also toss from the pitcher's circle.
"Our goal is to cut down on our walks," Roxbury said. "We're focusing on throwing strikes."
Audrey Dahlin will handle the catching duties and Candice Carlson will see time behind the plate as well. The rest of the infield will be handled by Jessica Trujillo (first base), Allison Parish (second base) and Brianne Bieren (third base).
"We struggled defensively last year, so defense is a major focus for us," Roxbury said.
In the outfield, Theresa Matzen (center), Natasha Ugarte (right) and Rodriguez (center) will see the majority of playing time.
Umatilla (2-3) opens EOL play at Culver on Tuesday.
ATHENA - With nearly its entire team back from last year, Weston-McEwen coach Jeff Griggs and his squad have playoff goals. The TigerScots played in the East Division last season, but are making the move to the West Division this year.
The TigerScots return EOL East Division first-team pitcher Codi Smalley, who owned a 2.44 ERA last year. Smalley, along with Karissa Griggs and Ashley Bagdon, will see time in the pitcher's circle.
"We have a pretty good core of pitchers," Griggs said. "Codi was effective last season and is very experienced."
In the infield, Jennifer Denton returns at third base. Denton earned EOL first-team infield honors last season and averaged .468 at the dish.
"She hits the ball well, and hitting is something that we need to do a little better job of this season," Griggs said.
Lacey Johnston returns at first base and won the team's Golden Glove Award last season. Laura Johnston split time with Karissa Griggs at second base last season. Ashleigh Riddle and Kayla Schroeder will split time at shortstop.
"We have a number of girls that have played together for some time, and our chemistry will be strong," Griggs said. "Most the team is pretty seasoned from last year."
Corey Harris and Schroeder will handle the catching duties.
Karissa Griggs, who hit .313 last season, and Sara Weber and Bagdon will see time in the outfield as well.
The TigerScots (5-0) visit Echo/Stanfield for an EOL doubleheader on Tuesday.
EOL returning First-team All-Stars
Pitcher - Ashley Martinez, Echo/Stanfield.
Outfielders - Nancy Sandival Stanfield; *Madison Bailey, Heppner.
Infielders - *Allison Robles, Pilot Rock.
Catcher - Hannah Kirk, Pilot Rock
Designated Hitter, Utility- Heather Yokum, Heppner; Kristina Kinney, Pilot Rock.
Player of the Year - Mandy Griffith Elgin.
Pitcher - Codi Smalley, Weston-McEwen; Jennifer Brotherton, Union.
Catcher - Mandy Griffith, Elgin.
Infielder - Jenifer Denton, Weston-McEwen; Molly Coffee, Pine Eagle.
Outfielder - Sandra Meredith, Union; Nikki Simpson, Pine Eagle.
Utilty/Designated hitter - Randi Tarter Pine Eagle.