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Softball Preview - Bruin Softball Relishing Underdog Status
After a 1-6 start to a difficult preseason schedule, Riverbank High's varsity softball team may be overlooked when opposing teams square off in the Trans-Valley League this year.

But that could prove to be a fatal mistake.

The Bruins return a lineup packed with contact hitters, a spectacular defensive unit and the capability to hand even the best teams a good game.

That fact was evident on Friday when a first inning offensive jolt left Riverbank with a 2-0 lead over an Oakdale team that reached last year's Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals and sports a 6-0-1 record so far in 2012.

Oakdale trailed by the two-score deficit until a nine-run rally in the fifth inning, but struggled early against Riverbank's deft lineup and stiff defense.

"After the way we played Oakdale, we saw that we compete with anybody," Riverbank coach Cassi Ross (eighth season) said.

Riverbank graduated longtime ace Carlye Avey (scholarship to Simpson University) and standout shortstop Aimee Lopez (scholarship to Felician College), but returns key members of the lineup to compete with sharp additions to the program.

Aimee's senior sister, Amanda Lopez, has already signed a commitment to play softball on a scholarship at Cal State San Bernardino, and is considered one of the best catchers currently competing in the SJS. She has already smashed a home run in 2012, gunned down six would-be base-stealers in Riverbank's last four games and belted a first-at bat base hit to score Yolanda Sandoval against Oakdale. Sandoval had smashed a double to get on base, and watched teammate Amy McDonald plate Lopez just moments after she scored.

McDonald (2011 TVL All League) was Riverbank's top hitter a season ago, and returns to anchor the core of the Bruin lineup from the No. 3 position in the order. She follows the likes of Sandoval, who has claimed the leadoff position and duties on the mound as Riverbank's new ace.

It's a big task for a freshman, but Sandoval has a strong travel ball background and has already shown improvements in her control. She walked three hitters during Oakdale's nine-run inning, but had kept the Mustangs' potent lineup at bay for four full innings.

"We have incredible defense behind her and she knows that, she sees that," Ross said. "She goes out there and does her best, never quitting. She fights every inning."

The Bruins also return senior Cassandra Gilbert, who struggled to return to the diamond after breaking her fibula in four places during a travel ball game in September of 2011.

"(Gilbert) is a leader in our outfield and has a great arm," Ross said. "She is a quiet leader and really helps the younger players on the team."

The Bruins also return hard-hitting junior third baseman Tori Sandoval, junior first basemen Raine Gallagher, sophomore outfielder Toni Adams and the talents of sophomore shortstop Brittany Cody, who dazzled onlookers during the Oakdale game with a diving stab to stop a line drive and force a double play during Oakdale's nine-run inning. Cody, a travel ball star with tremendous infield talent, is the big playmaker in Riverbank's infield.

The Lady Bruins in general have no shortage of talent. Sandoval and Adams both belted home runs during a 16-0 rout of Denair earlier this year for Riverbank's lone win of the season. The team rosters freshman basketball star Olivia Luu, who returns to softball for the first time in several years and has nailed down a starting position in right field. The speedy youngster is basically a second leadoff from the No. 9 position in Riverbank's batting order.

"(Luu) is a mature athlete and knows what it takes to win at the varsity level," Ross said. "She knows how to handle herself and she is focused and determined to get better."

The Bruin girls begin TVL action on March 16 in a showdown with Modesto Christian. The Crusaders fell to TVL juggernaut Hughson in the Division V section finals a year ago and are one of five conference teams with a winning record nearly three weeks into the preseason. Hughson has already bested returning D-IV section champ, Sierra and D-IV stalwarts, Kimball, Los Banos and Patterson. The Huskies will be heavily favored to win the TVL while the likes of Modesto Christian (3-2), Hilmar (2-1), Orestimba (6-0) and Ripon (6-1) fight Riverbank for the remaining two seeds from the league into the postseason.