When the year's first Southern Section Softball Coaches' Poll was released recently, Irvine was conspicuously missing from the top 10 rankings.
That was not only surprising to third-year Irvine Coach Lisa Limp, but also to some Orange County coaches who have seen the Vaqueros play.
"They've got to be the No. 1 team," Canyon Coach Lance Eddy said. "They've got (pitcher Jennifer) Brundage, who does everything."
Said Foothill's Joe Gonzalez: "They are super talented."
A close look at Irvine's personnel supports these claims. The Vaqueros are The Times' preseason top-ranked team this year, followed by a host of perennially strong squads and a few promising programs.
Here's a look at the Top 10 teams: 1. IRVINE
The Vaqueros return 10 players from the squad that went 24-3 before being upset by Tustin, 2-1, in the first round of the section Division III-A playoffs.
Among them is Brundage, a senior who was the South Coast League's most valuable player in 1990 and an all-county selection. The right-hander posted a 21-3 record and hit .424 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in.
Limp also counts on senior designated hitter Sandra Lutsch (.306) and junior second baseman Karissa Meith (.270) for some offensive sock. But the coach believes her team's strong suit--besides Brundage's pitching--is defense.
That part of Irvine's game will be anchored by sophomore first baseman Alleah Poulson, whom Limp calls "a great defensive player," senior outfielder Brandi Armstrong and junior shortstop Carrie Caudill. 2. FOUNTAIN VALLEY
Any team with players the caliber of all-Sunset League selections Rae Rice and Shannon Dolan figures to be strong.
Rice, a senior right-hander who had 18 victories in 21 decisions, keeps batters at bay with the help of Dolan, the county's best catcher. Dolan, a senior, hit .285 with a pair of homers and 10 RBIs last year.
Their supporting cast includes sophomore third baseman Jennifer Allchin (.280, 11 runs scored), senior shortstop Kristen Santa Cruz (.234, nine RBIs) and junior center fielder Robin Northcraft, a speedster who is making her debut with the Barons and will be their leadoff batter. Junior left-hander Bridgett Thackeray is up from the junior varsity team and will back up Rice. Her twin sister, Beverly, will back up Dolan at catcher.
Coach Cary Baker, in his 10th year at Fountain Valley, guided the Barons to a 22-7 record last year and to the semifinals of the section Division 5-A playoffs. Fountain Valley lost that game to Newbury Park, 1-0. 3. MATER DEI
With seven returning players from a 22-4 team in 1990, the Monarchs again should be among the cream of county teams this season.
Sixth-year Coach Cathy Quesnell guided Mater Dei to the Angelus League title last year and to the section's Division 5-A semifinals, where the Monarchs lost, 5-0, to eventual champion Marina.
That club featured the outstanding pitching of Terri Kobata and Jennifer Clark, but Kobata most likely will be limited to the outfield this season because her crow-hop style of pitching has been ruled illegal. Quesnell said Kobata doesn't think she can adjust to a new delivery in time for the season.
Clark, a sophomore right-hander, who was 15-2 last year, will start the bulk of the Monarchs' games.
The Monarchs' best hitter is junior catcher Jennifer Cline (.272, five doubles), who Quesnell is counting on to provide power.
Another change in the lineup will be the addition of senior Melinda Ramirez at first base, where she replaces standout Amy Moeller. Moeller decided to skip softball and concentrate on volleyball. 4. MARINA
Much like Mater Dei, the Vikings will have to make do this year without one of their front-line pitchers, senior right-hander Janet Miyahara (16-1 and 0.13 ERA), who is academically ineligible. But Coach Shelley Luth, who takes over after assisting Susie Calderon for eight years, still has a wealth of material.
Leading the defending Sunset League and section Division 5-A champions are three all-league players: pitcher Willa Parchen and outfielders Julie Luft and Robyn Yorke.
Parchen, a senior right-hander, was 12-3 last year. Luft, a junior right fielder, hit .277 with four homers, and sophomore Yorke batted .297 with 11 stolen bases.
The Vikings, however, will have to fill the catching vacancy left by the graduation of all-county player Christa Yorke (.302, 11 stolen bases). Christa, who is Robyn's older sister, is now playing for Fresno State.
Luth said junior Tricia Cole and sophomore Becky Tackett will compete for the position. 5. CANYON
Canyon is coming off a 21-7 season and a second-place finish in the Century League. Though the Comanches will start three freshmen, they still figure to be strong with the return of pitcher Sara Roberts.
Roberts, a senior, has won 30 games and registered a 0.63 ERA over three years at Canyon. Last season she was 14-5 with a 0.35 ERA and 126 strikeouts.