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Well, I didn’t see that coming.

It looked like the North Bay League softball title race was going to be a good one, but it took a major left turn Thursday, which means it might be even better than expected.

The Montgomery Vikings had set themselves apart early, putting up a 7-1 record and a 2-0 start in league with a roster that is loaded. They looked like the team to beat, until, that is, somebody beat them. Badly, in fact.

Cardinal Newman, playing on the Vikings’ home turf, ran roughshod over the early league favorites 23-3 Thursday when the game was called under the mercy rule after five innings.

The loss may or may not matter in the long run for Montgomery, but it will surely prompt some soul-searching for the Vikings and will just as likely whet the appetite of other contenders in the league who will now look at the Vikings as perhaps more vulnerable than otherwise thought.

When I talked to Vikings’ coach Mike Malvino on Wednesday, we chatted some about what looked like Windsor’s surprising loss to Maria Carrillo. Windsor is, after all, a team that can claim a legitimate shot at the champions’ banner and that result was a bit unexpected, at least from the Windsor camp.

In what now seems like eerie foreshadowing, he said, “They are like us; they can’t afford to lose to a team they should beat.”

And for good measure, he added, “The league has really come into parity.”

Has it ever.

Montgomery’s loss is likely to send minor shockwaves throughout the league. Coming into the season, it was shaping up to be a battle including the Vikings, Windsor and Rancho Cotate.

But consider Maria Carrillo. The Pumas beat a tough Windsor team in extra innings, battled Montgomery before falling 8-6 last week and went up 1-0 early against Rancho before falling 2-1 Thursday. They make a case for being in the conversation.

And if Newman can put the mercy rule on Montgomery, doesn’t that put them in the mix too?

Rancho, winners of the past two NBL titles, lost a slew of talent from last year’s squad, but always seem to be in the hunt. And no one should sleep on Windsor, a team with the goods to challenge for league supremacy, despite an early extra-innings loss to Carrillo.

Parity indeed.

Keeping major fluctuations in mind, let’s look at the early-season big dogs, but let us also remember that this league race is already producing some major surprises and games aren’t won on resumes or last year’s batting averages.

Let’s start with Montgomery. Before Thursday’s game, Malvino sounded confident.

“On paper, we should win this league,” he said. “We’re loaded.”

The Vikings return every major piece from last year’s squad that finished third in the North Bay League, but also went 3-1 against a loaded Rancho Cotate team while advancing to the North Coast Section Division 2 semifinals.

The offensive heart of the lineup early is coming, in part, from the bat of senior Sierra Shannoff. Shannoff hit .537 last year with a team-leading 13 homers. Shanoff is picking up where she left off, hitting .542 this season with four homers.

“They are walking her a lot, pitching around her,” Malvino said.

Once Shanoff lands on first, though, Malvino is likely to put in speedy freshman Jena Kelley to pinch-run for her.

And swinging fifth and sixth in the Vikings’ lineup are lefty Maddie Larson — a first-team all-league pick last year as a freshman — and fellow first-teamer Ashley Baker. Larson is hitting .406 on the season and Baker is at .444.

Baker, who turned up late to the team because she was busy playing goalkeeper for the Vikings’ soccer team, apparently had no trouble knocking the rust off.

“We got her three weeks late,” Malvino said. “Her first game back she hit a grand slam, so she really didn’t miss too much.”

On the mound, typically, it’s senior Anna Zoia-Buescher, a first-team all-league pick last season. Malvino will also use junior Lily Castro.

“Lily throws really hard. She has a lot more velocity than Anna has,” Malvino said. “Anna has a totally awesome changeup that yanks people out of their shoes. They’ll swing three times before it gets to home plate.”

Over in Windsor, the Jags, who finished last season 18-8-1 overall and 11-3 to take second place in league, have an ace of their own in junior Kayla Scott. Scott was a first-team all-league pick as a sophomore and has only gotten better, according to coach Morgan Rasmason.

“She improved a lot over the summer,” she said. “She picked up a couple of pitches, so now she throws everything. She has a great changeup and it’s no secret; everyone knows.”

They also return honorable mention all-league pick, senior Camille Kahnberg, on third base.

“She’s a wall on defense,” Rasmason said.

Shortstop Grace Hernandez is just a sophomore, but Rasmason made her one of her captains this season because of her work rate and defensive prowess.

“She makes smart plays I don’t think any other shortstop would otherwise make,” she said.

Windsor didn’t do themselves any favors by starting off league play 0-1. Tallying six errors, it was not the start Rasmason envisioned.

“Our defense, we didn’t show up,” she said. “We gave them the game; we let them hang around. We were playing from behind the whole game.”

So Rasmason is having to teach her team a lesson she hoped wouldn’t hit this early — how to shake off a tough loss and move on.

“It’s over. We can’t change it and I don’t want to dwell on it, either,” she said. “In softball, when you think about your mistakes you tend to make more of them.”

Rancho Cotate likely faces the biggest uphill battle of the three contenders. The Cougars took the title last season, but also lost a slew of talented seniors, including league MVP Brittney Scardina and five first-team all-league picks. But the Cougars return junior Talia Guerrero, a first-team all-league pick last season.

Guerrero hit .394 last season on a roster of big hitters.

Cougars coach Tracey Poueu-Guerrero has moved second-team all-league pick junior Makayla Barnes to catcher and senior Natalie Akin takes over on first base.

“This is the largest roster I have ever carried just for depth for their age,” she said.

And the foul weather in March may, in the end, help the Cougars. They have played just one game because of the bad weather, and that may give Poueu-Guerrero time to put in extra work with her youthful squad.

“It’s different for me, but I’m hoping that it’s going to help this young team,” she said.

But it’s the Vikings who were on everyone’s radar. Whether that holds true after Thursday’s result remains to be seen.

But before that shocker, a feeling of confidence emanated from the Vikings’ dugout.

“Our whole lineup is pretty deadly,” Shanoff said. “We all can hit.”

When I asked Larson on Wednesday who the team to beat in the NBL is, she didn’t pause.

“To be honest, I think it’s us,” she said.

Maybe Newman got that message, because they did a number on the Vikings. But they also sent a signal that the NBL title chase may be way more complicated, and way more fun, than any of us anticipated.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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