Mt. Carmel and Vista high schools had little trouble finishing first and second, respectively, in the Palomar League last year.
The Sundevils, The Times' No. 2-ranked team in 1985, lost their first league game, but proceeded to win 11 straight. The Panthers lost only three games, and were two games ahead of third-place Torrey Pines in the final standings.
When the San Diego Section 3-A pairings came out, many thought the teams would advance to the semifinals and play each other for a third time, giving the league its second finalist in two years. But Mira Mesa--the eventual champion--beat Mt. Carmel, 2-0, in the first round, and Vista, 5-4, in the semifinals.
Neither the Sundevils nor the Panthers are as strong this year. And the rest of the league is stronger.
Mt. Carmel and Vista are still favored by the league's coaches, but Fallbrook, Orange Glen and Poway also are picked to contend.
"Mt. Carmel has got to be ranked up there," Vista Coach Mike Sanchez said. "But Fallbrook has surprised a few people. Poway and Orange Glen should be right there, too."
"I think you have to go with Mt. Carmel as the team to beat again," Torrey Pines Coach Darold Nogle said. "But Vista probably returns more good players than anyone in the league."
Here's a closer look at the league:
Last season's record: 4-8, 13-13
Coach: Dave Heid
Top returners: Pitcher/center fielder Bill Dunckel (junior, bats right, throws right), center fielder/first baseman T.J. Flynn (junior, switch-hitter, throws right) and Pitcher Joe Comer (senior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomer: Catcher Jeff Ritchie (junior, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: Scoring runs at the right time was a problem last season, as the Warriors lost seven one-run games. But the Warriors (12-1), whose losing record was their second in 19 years, have had no problem scoring runs this year. Bonita Vista handed Fallbrook its only loss (11-5) in the semifinals of the Lions tournament.
Fallbrook has hit .340 as a team. Dunckel has six homers and Flynn has five for the Warriors, who have hit 19 home runs.
Heid said he was equally pleased with his team's pitching. Comer, an all-league selection last year, is 5-0 with an earned-run average of 0.65, and Dunckel is 4-0. The Warriors play in a small ballpark, but the Warriors have allowed their opponents only three home runs.
Ritchie has hit .340 and taken charge of the pitching staff.
Last season's record: 11-1, 19-6
Finish: First (lost in first round of playoffs)
Coach: Sam Blalock
Top returners: Catcher/pitcher Miah Bradbury (senior, bats right, throws right), First baseman Jim Tejcek (senior, bats right, throws right) and shortstop Pete Cowen (senior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomer: Outfielder Ron Kelly (sophomore, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: The Sundevils can hit and pitch well, but Blalock said fielding could be the team's weak spot.
Kelly has hit over .400 this year after spending last season on the junior varsity team. Bradbury hit nine home runs last year, the fourth highest total in Section history, though he was in a slump early this season. Blalock said he was encouraged that Bradbury "hit the ball hard" and went 4 for 6 in his last two games. The Sundevils are hitting .308 as a team.
Juniors Ed Vanaelstyn (2-0, 0.89 ERA) and Tom Cheek (3-2, 1.16 ERA) have been the team's top pitchers. Cheek's losses came in games he did not start.
But the fielding has been a problem. The Sundevils lost to Poway, 10-9, in the first round of the Lions tournament. An outfielder dropped a fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh inning.
"The score should have been, 9-2," Blalock said. "We've been inconsistent. It's just laziness."
Last season's record: 6-6, 13-11
Coach: Art Warren
Top returners: Third baseman Frank Escalante (junior, bats right, throws right), second baseman Arcadio Naranjo (senior, bats right, throws right), pitcher Brett Salisbury (senior, bats right, throws right), and catcher Scott Carlovsky (senior, bats right, throws right).
Top newcomer: Shortstop Glen Reyes (freshman, bats right, throws right).
Outlook: The Patriots (6-4) could have been one of the favorites this season, but lost two of their top players because of injuries. Still, the Patriots have played well and most of the league's coaches predict they will be in the top four.
Scott Harper moved away and Duffy Daughtery, an all-league selection, broke his foot in football and then injured his shoulder lifting weights. "We're not deep enough that losing two front-line players doesn't hurt us," Warren said.
Warren said the Patriots have played well enough to win most every game, but errors have cost them.
"We're averaging three or four (errors) a game," Warren said. "It's frustrating. We've been geting good pitching (from Salisbury (2-0) and junior right-hander Ray Chatton (3-2)), but we've been giving up too many unearned runs. We can't give up any to stay close to Mt. Carmel and Vista."