By GERARDO RECINOS
Before the celebratory Gatorade had even dried from his trademark windbreaker, a decision had been made: Paul Buccellato was not leaving the program.
The final few games on the 2015 season were like a farewell tour, everything was easy, the team was playing well, getting along and it all ended with a story book ending.
So whether you believe that parents of the Bulldogs players twisted Buccellato’s arm to come back, or that the coach would be nuts to leave a situation this golden is up to you.
“It was shortly after (the playoffs), I was thinking about it, and because the year turned out to be a great year as far as team chemistry,” Buccellato said. “Doesn’t matter if we won the championship, it’s because these girls all get along.”
When he says these girls, he means the girls who will all be playing together going on three seasons now. Because if you’re keeping score at home, the Bulldogs only lost one senior from the team’s 2015 North Coast Section winning team.
“I don’t think there is anyone that can stop us, but we still got to play,” Buccellato said. “Shelby (Clemons) pitched her butt off in the playoffs, she carried the load last year. But Sam (Whitworth) has a lot more confidence this year.”
Whitworth will take the bulk of the duties in the circle for the Bulldogs after making 20 appearances in 2015 as the number two for Alhambra. She posted a 2.98 ERA in relief, with a 3-1 record and a .213 opponents batting average against. Sophomore Briana Edwards will fill in Whitworth’s role from last season, while fellow sophomore Gina Momaney will have to watch the season from the bench due to a freak accident in practice that ended her season.
“She’s got good stuff, she’s hitting her spots, got a lot of spin on the ball,” Buccellato said.
So with Whitworth, Buccellato had at least one spot on the opening day line up filled in, but as for the rest of it, he says he is still undecided.
Reigning Diablo Foothill Athletic League MVP Briana Perez and first-team all league selection Karlee Sparacino will continue their duties as the double play combination, and Saint Mary’s College signee Cara DiMercurio will move back behind the plate partly due to the emergence of a Clayton Valley Charter transfer.
Much like a millionaire winning the lottery, Buccellato struck gold without even knowing it when junior Kimiko Zapanta showed up at tryouts. The St. Mary’s College commit hit .554 for the Ugly Eagles in 2015, and also stole 35 bases. Zapanta’s addition to the team will allow Buccellato to hit Perez further down the lineup, and increase her RBI total.
Zapanta will likely anchor a crowded outfield that could see any number of players in starting spots depending on how they look in the lead up to a game.
Returning players like senior Madeline Cervantes and juniors Jojo Kelly and Miranda Nilson will all compete for a spot, with junior Morgan Azevedo also being able to spell any of the three. Azevedo and Cervantes were both first-team all-DFAL in 2015.
“It’s a good problem to have, right now Miranda (Nilson) has been playing well,” Buccellato said, giving an indication that if the season started tomorrow the junior outfielder would start.
Regan Silva and Lindsey Osmer will likely start at the corners but even then the Alhambra skipper still has options. Kelly saw time at third base last year, and Azevedo has been picking it well at first as well.
“She (Osmer) is picking her game up and playing more confidently. In the championship I pulled her out, because she made two or three errors, and you could just tell she was rattled by it. But with her maturity this year you can tell she won’t be rattled by it,” the coach said.
At any point in any ball game Buccellato can rotate all nine players and put them in different positions, fill in players from the bench, and not lose a beat.
That’s the sign of a great team, but even more telling is the willingness of the girls to fill in at whatever position the team needs them.
“Division II has 10 teams that can win the North Coast Section tournament, I think it is definitely tougher than Division I,” Buccellato said of the team’s chances to become the first team since Freedom-Oakley to win three straight NCS titles in a row.
Freedom won five straight from 2002-2006. The Bulldogs have three section titles in the last five years. The Bulldogs took a brief hiatus from NCS title games in 2012 and 2013 after being knocked out twice in the semi-finals in their first two seasons in Division II.