You might think that with a California girl being named this week as the Gatorade National Player of the Year that the annual Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Softball State Player of the Year choice is a slam dunk. Not quite. Merced’s Madilyn Nickles actually has legitimate competition in her own backyard, based on the criteria we go by, and in fact it’s such a wide-open race that we have selected the most finalists we ever have with nine.
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Congratulations to these nine players who have been selected as finalists for the 2016 Ms. Softball State Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports. This is the only statewide player honor that has 30 years of experience behind it and the winner will join an all-time list of State Players of the Year that extends past 40 years.
(All players listed in alphabetical order)
Holly Azevedo (Pioneer, San Jose) Jr.
Our State Sophomore of the Year from last season didn’t have the same hard-to-believe pitching totals this season, but she made huge strides as a hitter and seems like a strong candidate to be the San Jose Mercury-News Player of the Year for the second straight year. Azevedo, committed to UCLA, led Pioneer to a 25-3 record and runner-up finish in the CCS D2 playoffs behind Archbishop Mitty of San Jose. She only gave up five earned runs all season in 191 innings for a 0.18 ERA with 334 strikeouts and 16 walks. At the plate, Azevedo became more potent with a .482 batting average. She also had 20 RBI, six doubles and two homers.
Nicole Bates (Ceres) Sr.
Is it possible that the Gatorade National Player of the Year might not be the Modesto Bee’s Stanislaus District Player of the Year? Yes, it is because Bates can make a compelling case to be chosen higher. She led Ceres to its first CIF Sac-Joaquin Section title in 21 years in a D3 bracket that included two teams, Oakdale and Manteca East Union, that were in the State Top 20 when the playoffs began. Bates, an infielder, batted .571 with 60 hits, five homers and 33 RBI. She also finished with a career batting average of .512 and with several career totals that are going into the state record book, such as hits (205), runs (171) and doubles (31). It’s not like she’s going to a D2 college, either. She’s going to Washington. And when Ceres played Merced (which is where Gatorade National POY Madilyn Nickles is from), Bates’ team won 4-0. She went 1-for-4 in that game, Nickles went 0-for-3.
Jordan Fines (Sheldon, Sacramento) Sr.
As the top player on the top team in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section (which is the same section as finalists Nicole Bates and Madilyn Nickles), we felt it only made sense to also include Fines as a finalist as well. She’s a slick infielder who helped lift Sheldon to a 30-2 record and the section’s D1 title. While her younger sister, Maci, had a higher batting average, Fines was at her best against the best teams. The University of California-Berkeley signer averaged .444 with 12 doubles and 38 RBI. When Sheldon beat Alhambra of Martinez 11-1, Fines scored three times. She doubled and scored a run off of Merced’s Madilyn Nickles when the Huskies blanked the Bears 3-0.
Madilyn Nickles (Merced) Sr.
If this were a pick about which player in the state is most likely to be an All-American in college or lead a U.S. National Team, then it would be easy to choose Nickles. She was the only junior on last summer’s USA Junior National Team and was the only high school-age player invited to train with the 2016 USA Softball Women’s Elite Team. Nickles also was a pitcher and hitter for her high school team and had strong stats, including a .552 batting average with eight homers and 27 RBI. She also went 20-5 in the circle and had 308 strikeouts and just 28 walks allowed. Her Merced team, however, only went 22-7 (lost in CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D1 semifinals) and there are other Ms. Softball finalists from teams that were much better that also had statistics comparable or better and against stronger competition. We’ve had Nickles on all-state underclass teams for two years so we know she’s a great player and she might still indeed get to be Ms. Softball. It’s just not that easy.
Melanie Olmos (Grand Terrace) Sr.
She would seem to be the top candidate this year from the Inland Empire and hails from a team that finished 28-1, won the CIFSS Division III title and ranked third in the state. Olmos, one of two players off the Titans’ roster who is headed to national power Oklahoma (the other is junior shortstop Eliyah Flores), was in the circle for all of her team’s playoff games, including a three-hitter with nine strikeouts in the final vs. Redondo of Redondo Beach. She wound up 17-1 with a 0.22 ERA. Olmos was not Grand Terrace’s top hitter, but was more than solid with a .380 batting average and 21 RBI.
Jessica Seely (Foothill, Palo Cedro) Jr.
In most years, the girl who was State Junior of the Year from the previous season is almost always a finalist as a senior. That didn’t happen this time because even though Redding Shasta’s Mia Camuso had another great season (14 homers), Seely was a sensational pitcher and hitter for a Foothill team that dominated in the CIF Northern Section at 29-1. Committed to Sacramento State, Seely batted .510 with eight homers and 42 RBI. As a pitcher, she went 24-1 with a 0.31 ERA and had 242 strikeouts with just 18 walks.
Karlee Sparacino (Alhambra, Martinez) Jr.
It’s certainly debatable between Sparacino, teammate Briana Perez, Pleasanton Amador Valley’s Danielle Williams and Oakley Freedom’s Vanessa Strong, but Sparacino would be our choice from the East Bay. Perez (UCLA commit) is often more highly ranked as a college prospect, but this season Sparacino (who is committed to Oregon) had more hard to beat totals. She hit .620 with seven homers and 57 RBI compared to Perez at .613 with six homers and 40 RBI. And for Williams (who many even in SoCal think is the state’s best pitcher) she probably needed to get Amador into the NCS finals for her to be a finalist. All four could be on the all-state elite first team.
Vanessa Taukeiaho (Etiwanda) Sr.
It wouldn’t have taken much – one homer here and there – for Vanessa’s power-hitting Etiwanda teammate, Megan Stevens, to be a finalist instead. Taukeiaho led the state reported home runs with 20, one in front of Stevens, and capped a spectacular four-year career. For the season, the University of Oklahoma-bound standout rapped out 64 hits for a .640 batting average and had 56 RBI to go with her home runs. The state record book also will include many of Vanessa’s career totals, including 37 homers, 169 hits and 35 doubles. Her career batting average is listed at .486. Taukeiaho does not pitch like some other Ms. Softball finalists, but she probably has put her name into the record book in more categories than anyone else.
Camryn Ybarra (Mission Viejo) Jr.
Heading into the final day of the season, it’s safe to say that Orange Lutheran’s Maddy Dwyer was being looked at as a likely Ms. Softball State POY finalist. It then became more of a factor to look for a different Orange County player when a different Orange County team ended up No. 1 in the state. Ybarra, who has committed to Oregon State, led the Diablos in hitting during the regular season at .522 and in the playoffs she was stellar with five home runs. The daughter of Mission Viejo head coach Troy Ybarra also is already a three-year starter for the Diablos and in that time the team has finished No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 in the state.