The road to the Southern Section 4-A Division championship softball game is a tough one, often with unexpected curves of the kind not thrown by any pitcher.
But Coach Chuck Brown and his Thousand Oaks High team want to travel it again, all the way to the end, which they hope will be different this time around.
The Lancers made it to the final last season before losing to Cypress High, 5-0.
Eight regulars from that team are back for this year's postseason playoffs, which begin with Ventura facing the Lancers in a first-round game at 3 p.m. today at Thousand Oaks.
"It's a really exciting time right now, because you know you have a chance to make it to the finals," Brown said. "We're all set. I think the players feel like they can go in there and play with anybody now. But we've got to concentrate on this game and not look past anybody."
Ventura, which finished third in the Channel League with a 9-5 record, may have trouble getting past Thousand Oaks' defense, which has been a strength all season. The Lancers (22-7, 10-2 in league play) won the Marmonte League championship thanks largely to a strong infield and a balanced offense.
Thousand Oaks third baseman Tricia Gregoire has made just five errors and first baseman Jamie Heggen has made only three. In addition, the Lancers may have the best shortstop in the league in Phronsie Franco, who has made seven errors.
"She's played very, very steadily for us," Brown said of Franco, "and she makes some plays that, when other people make them, we say, 'That's a good play,' but when she makes them, they're routine. We've just kind of come to expect it of her."
Thousand Oaks also has a strong offense. Leadoff batter Amy Chellevold leads the team with a .366 average and 30 runs scored. Heggen is batting .365 with 25 runs scored and 19 runs batted in and Julie Chellevold is batting .319 with 18 runs scored.
Brown hopes the blend of offense and defense will help the Lancers keep right on rolling--all the way back into the championship game. Thousand Oaks has won 16 of its last 18 games.
"The players remember it," he said. "It's just the team that can play steadily, and if we could get the hits at the right time, we could be there again."
Shireen Campbell (9-6), one of only three seniors on the squad, will be the starting pitcher for the Lancers.
The other Marmonte League teams to qualify for the playoffs are Simi Valley and Newbury Park, which tied for second place. Simi Valley is the league's second-place team, however, because although the teams split their league games, the Pioneers scored more runs in head-to-head competition.
The Pioneers play host to Los Alamitos, the second-place team from the Empire League, at 3 p.m. today at Rancho Simi Community Park.
Junior left-hander Chrissy Oliver (18-7) will start for Simi Valley (19-8, 9-3 in league play). Los Alamitos (12-10, 6-4) will start sophomore Shannon Shoglund (9-4).
"I feel real confident, like we can beat anybody on any given day," Simi Valley Coach Suzanne Manlet said. "I'm sure we'll be ready to play."
Besides handling most of the pitching duties for the Pioneers, Oliver (0.63 earned-run average, 174 strikeouts and 20 walks in 173 innings) has helped herself on offense with a .333 batting average. Also contributing offensively are Kelly and Tammi Kauffman, with .484 and .364 averages.
Top hitters for Los Alamitos are sophomore Christy Bowles (.343) and freshman Julie Harris (.324).
Newbury Park (18-8-1, 9-3 in league play) opens at Santa Barbara, the second-place team from the Channel League, at 3 p.m. today.
The Panthers, who enter the playoffs having swept 4-A power Righetti High last weekend in a nonleague doubleheader, will likely start sophomore Lea Lopez.
Santa Barbara ( 10-6, 12-2) will start right-hander Heather Frowiss (16-6). Leading the offense will be Kari Cordero (.458) and Shannon Frowiss (.326).
In other first-round games today, Channel League champion Buena (13-1 in league play) faces Lompoc, the third-place team from the Northern League; and Royal earned an at-large berth at Santa Maria, the Northern League's second-place team.
In 1-A Division first-round games today, St. Bonaventure, the Tri-Valley League's second-place team with an 11-3 league record, visits South Pasadena, the Rio Hondo League champion. Third-place Fillmore visits Leuzinger, the top team from the Pioneer League.
La Reina (16-5, 13-1), the Tri-Valley League champion, plays host to Maranatha, the winner of a wild-card game Tuesday; and El Segundo, the Pioneer League's second-place team, visits Santa Paula (9-3 in league play), the Frontier League champion.