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As important as pitching is in softball, this year should be a stellar one for North Bay League schools.

Three of the league’s top pitchers are returning, including NBL co-most valuable players Delaney Kindopp of Ukiah, a senior, and junior Brittney Scardina of Rancho Cotate, along with all-league senior Lexie Raasch of Cardinal Newman.

Rancho Cotate, which went 10-4 to place second in league last year and 21-7 overall, returns eight members of its starting lineup and seven all-league players.

“They’ll be the team to beat,” said Newman coach Bill Vreeland.

Ukiah, which won the league by going 13-1 and 21-6, will be tough, but lost some horsepower from last season, coach Gary Venturi said.

He agreed the Cougars look to be the powerhouse team this year.

“Besides Rancho, I think all of us can beat up on each other on any given day,” he said. “We have the possibility of being as good as last year’s team, but it’s not proven yet.”

As league play gets under way, Montgomery brings a 7-3 overall record while Rancho Cotate is 2-4. But that’s deceiving, at least for Rancho. They traveled to Southern California this pre-league season to play tough competition in the sunny year-round softball environs.

“I have a lot of girls on my team who play travel ball, so they’re used to playing the top-tier teams,” Cougars coach Tracey Guerrero said. “I felt like this was a group of girls I could take down for this kind of experience. We can only get better by playing tough competition.”

Scardina will again be the Cougars’ ace, and Guerrero said she’s improved since last year.

“We did a lot of work in the offseason. We worked a lot on increasing her speed and getting more power behind her pitch,” she said. “She’s a lot faster than she was.”

Though the weather delayed everyone’s early season, Guerrero said the team is starting to coalesce.

“We got a slow start with the rain,” she said. “But I feel like we’re one of the strongest teams Rancho has seen in the past couple years. We have a bunch of good athletes. I’m just waiting for them to get in the swing of things.”

Ukiah’s Kindopp was co-MVP with Scardina last season, and her coach said she’s ready to lead the team again.

Although the team lost four starters, several others have stepped up, Venturi said, including senior third baseman Kayla Pardini, senior second baseman Mykala Ramsey, pitcher Becky Peterson, shortstop Rylee Rickel and catcher Victoria Vau.

Backing up Newman ace Raasch will be Sarah Knight, a senior catcher and third baseman.

“Those two seniors will probably anchor us,” Vreeland said. “Both of those two are four-year starting players who will give us an opportunity to be successful every night.”

Vreeland said although his team is young, it is improving and will be competitive.

“Montgomery will be very strong,” he said. “The league up and down will be more competitive on any given day. Last year, Ukiah rolled through league. Not to say someone like Rancho can’t do it this year, but I think everyone is pretty good competition.”

Casa Grande, Windsor and Santa Rosa will fight it out in the middle of the standings, coaches predicted.

Cardinal Newman had lost four in a row before Thursday, but Vreeland sees some positives in the losses.

“They were all one-run games, all low scoring,” he said. “We’ll be as successful as we can hit. Lexie will keep us in games. If we can hit, we’ll be fine.”

Maria Carrillo has eight returning starters from its 8-6 team last year, adding some experience and maturity to the team. Along with four seniors, there are five freshmen on the team.

“We have some depth and flexibility,” coach Lonnie Harwell said.

After Carrillo won the league two years in a row, last year’s mid-table finish was disappointing, he said.

“We had chemistry problems last year,” he said. “This year we do not. The girls are really cohesive as a team.”

Freshman Anyssa Grant and Madison Vaughn have carried the pitching load this pre-league season.

Montgomery only lost one player to graduation, coach Mike Malvino said, and has two freshman starters.

“We’ve got a really young team, but we’re very talented,” he said.

Two sophomores are impressive Malvino so far: Sierra Shanoff is a power-hitting catcher, while Ashley Baker will anchor the infield at third.

“We have three left-handed slap hitters,” he said. “We have good power in the middle. I’m excited about this year.”