Be prepared for some hard knocks in Mission League baseball and softball

Get ready for lots of searching for missing baseballs after Loyola High senior Augie Lopez comes to the plate this season.

Last season the USC commit hit five home runs. At Wednesday’s Mission League baseball/softball media day, coach Keith Ramsey made it clear that Lopez is even stronger.

“What makes this guy special is his day to day work,” Ramsey said. “Every day he does something to make himself better. He’s got a lot of juice. We’re really impressed when he takes batting practice.”

The top pitchers in the league know all about Lopez. He had a grand slam against Harvard-Westlake and home runs against Alemany, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Chaminade and Cathedral in 2023. He knows pitchers will be throwing to him carefully.

“I’m staying selective,” Lopez said.

All eight coaches in the league said they would be taking advantage of the new rule that allows one-way electronic communication between a coach and catcher. Sierra Canyon coach Tom Meusborn joked that his team’s usual more than three hours required to complete games might be shortened but made no promises because he intends to continue to have lots of meetings.

The league will feature two of the best players in Southern California switching from third base to shortstop. Harvard-Westlake’s Bryce Rainer and Notre Dame’s Levi Sterling will make the transition while also continuing to pitch. Rainer will be used primarily as a closer. Sterling will become a starter on the mound.

There’s high expectations for a number of freshmen to make contributions. They include catcher Drew Rico of Harvard-Westlake, pitcher Sean Parrow of Sierra Canyon, outfielder Rickee Luevano of Bishop Alemany and pitcher Christian Fregoso of Crespi.

Harvard-Westlake pitcher Duncan Marsten is trying to become the first Wolverine since Lucas Giolito to touch 100 mph on the mound. He’s also going to bat for the first time in high school. Coach Jared Halpert said it was his mistake not to let Marsten hit before after seeing what he can do at the plate during the off season. “I’ve apologized to him many times over,” Halpert said.

Crespi has a group of juniors who can compete with anyone in Southern California. Pitcher Diego Velazquez is committed to USC, catcher Landon Hodge is committed to Louisiana State and pitcher Tyler Walton is a UC Santa Barbara commit. There’s also infielder Nate Lopez, committed to San Diego State.

St. Francis has a battle for smartest player. Pitcher Lucas Favretto has received one B in high school (English class) and is committed to Cal-Tech. All-league second baseman Holden Deitch is the school valedictorian with a 4.8 grade-point average. If they’re discussing stem cells or rocket engines in the dugout, coach Shaun Kort might have to intervene.

Notre Dame’s Kai Gonzaga is facing one of the toughest assignments, taking over as the leadoff hitter for Dean West (now at UCLA). So far, so good in winter games.

Chaminade’s Vinny Van der Wel, coming off a huge season at the plate, will also contribute on the mound. He’s a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo commit. He had 40 hits last season and five home runs.

There’s no doubt who ranks as the best returning player in Mission League softball. That would be Duke commit Hailey Shuler of Sierra Canyon. She was 10-4 on the mound and also hit nine home runs.

One of the best matchups should come when Sierra Canyon faces Notre Dame. Former Sierra Canyon star Izzy Mertes transferred to Notre Dame. She hit .566 with eight home runs last season. Now Shuler will get to face a good friend.

Of course, that happened last season when Shuler took on her former club teammate, Ella Parker of Notre Dame, now at Oklahoma.

What will be life like at Notre Dame without Parker? For one, fewer intentional walks.

“You lose arguably the best player in the country, it’s a blow,” Notre Dame coach Justin Siegel said. “More importantly, she’s a plus-human being, teammate and leader.”

Sophomore Sarah Jacobs is back for the Knights to pitch after a productive freshman season.

Louisville has Cal Baptist commit Bella Wellbaum.

Sierra Canyon’s Nina Peyton Johnson announced she has committed to Cal.

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