WATSONVILLE — Aptos and St. Francis are asking the same question as the start of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League season inches closer: Why not us?

Both teams are young, talented and hungry to prove themselves in the league dominated by Soquel, Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Valley over the last six seasons.

Aptos has not won a league title since the 2011 season, but has twice finished second in the league since then.

St. Francis has never finished better than fifth since joining the league in 2007, but is primed to make history under fourth-year head coach Art Doten.

The Sharks last season matched the program record for most league wins in a season (4), and return several stars from that squad, including the SCCAL Freshman of the Year, shortstop Ariana Azevedo.

Doten wants to see this group not only compete for the SCCAL title, but earn the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section postseason berth.

“It’s going to be a tough battle to get there, but I think we’re going to have a chance,” Doten said. “The league’s changed a bit since last year.”

Last year’s league title came down to the last day of the season. Scotts Valley and S.L.V. split the championship after the Falcons stunned the Cougars in their SCCAL finale.

Both figure to be the favorites to capture the league crown this season, but each lost big pieces to graduation. Scotts Valley is without the league M.V.P. Casson Rasmussen and S.L.V. graduated a trio of all-league first team selections in Maddy Johnson, Jillian Francis and Alexis Johnson.

The cupboard isn’t dry at either school — Scotts Valley has star juniors Alisha Patel and Lauren LaHood back, while S.L.V. returns the SCCAL Pitcher of the Year Ashley Welch — but Aptos and St. Francis believe they’ve closed the gap since the end of last season.

“I don’t see why we can’t compete,” said Aptos fourth-year head coach Phil Rojas. “In my mind, I feel like we’re going to make a run at the title. I think this is going to be a good year for us.”

Aptos last year finished tied for third in the SCCAL with a 6-6 record. The Mariners were arguably the youngest team in the league in 2017, showcasing a roster of 14 with six sophomores, two freshmen and no seniors.

This time around, Rojas has strong leadership stemming from a six-player senior class: Ashley Del Colletti,

Sophia Villegas, Allie Diaz, Braelynn Westjohn, Mariah Sanchez and Addison Sayers.

Del Colleti, Villegas and Sayers have played varsity softball for Rojas since their freshman seasons.

“This is the group I started with — time flies,” Rojas said. “It’s amazing to see them grow as people over the years.”

Del Colletti is the team’s catcher and leadoff hitter. She has earned all-league honors in every season leading up to her senior year, including last year’s selection to the All-SCCAL First Team. She does what every good leadoff hitter should: get on base.

“She’s a tough out,” Rojas said.

She makes up half of the Mariners’ battery. Junior pitcher Julia Cano is the other half.

After taking her bumps and bruises as a sophomore, Cano is projected to be one of the top pitchers in the SCCAL this season with her precise placement. She also bats in the cleanup spot.

“I expect a big season from her,” Rojas said. “She was kind of thrown into the fire last year, but I think she’s learned from that.”

Rojas said there won’t be pressure on Cano to pile up the strikeout totals because the Mariners’ infield defense is the best it’s been in years. That is in no small part because of sophomore shortstop Shea Garcia.

A petite lefty who packs a punch at the plate, Garcia is already committed to play NCAA Division I softball for the Portland State Vikings. Six games into the season, she leads the team in batting average (.588), hits (10), runs (6) and on base percentage (.667).

“She is impressive. She can do whatever you ask of her,” Rojas said. “She might not be very big, but she’s got a big heart, that’s for sure.”

Junior Martina Churchill is back at first base for the third consecutive season, Villegas is at second and Sayers plays the hot corner.

Sophomores Vanessa Segura and Sunshyne Brechler, junior Dezaray Angulo, and Westjohn, Diaz and Sanchez will all see time in the outfield and infielder throughout the season.

“Defensively, we’re pretty sound,” Rojas said, “and that’s how we’re going to win games.”

St. Francis will also bank on its defense behind senior pitcher Shelby Velasco, who is making the transition to the circle after playing outfield in 2017.

Miranda Jansich, now the starter at Cabrillo College, was the Sharks’ ace last season, and at times carried the team to victories en route to an All-SCCAL First Team selection.

Now, Velasco will have to fill that role.

“She’s in and she’s out, and she’s up and she’s down — she’s pretty solid,” Doten said of Velasco. “I would’ve love to have had her pitch more last season, but we had a pretty good one out there and we needed her in the outfield.”

Velasco is one of just two seniors on the St. Francis roster. Third baseman Anna Noto, an All-SCCAL Second Team selection last season, is the other.

Of the 11 other players on the team, seven are sophomores and two are freshman.

“I think we’re young, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to go for it,” Doten said.

Having Azevedo’s speed in the infield and bat at the plate will only help their chances. She led the team in triples (6) and homers (3), and was second in hits (38), doubles (9) and RBIs (21) last season.

Junior outfielder Lena Ciandro, an All-SCCAL First Team selection last season, is also back following a monster year in which she led the team in hits (46), doubles (12) and RBIs (26).

Azevedo bats leadoff, Velasco is second, Ciandro is third and Noto hits in the cleanup spot in the Sharks’ sturdy lineup.

Claire Cagnacci starts at first, Ashley Raich flanks her at second and Grace Kovacs is a star in the outfield. All three are sophomores.

“The future is looking pretty bright for the program,” said Doten, who also has juniors Janessa Yniguez and Maia Madrigal, sophomore Mika Marheineke, and freshmen Carlotta Ciandro and Audrey Hernandez for at least another season.

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