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Hang in there, then-second-year Santa Ynez softball coach Denicia Gills told her players in 2016 as they were mired in another winless season. Help is on the way.

A lot of help did come, several players from that 2016 squad delivered and the Pirates reached the CIF Southern Section Division 7 championship game.

They lost 7-4 to top-ranked Sun Valley Village Christian, but the Santa Ynez run was remarkable for a team that went 0-19 each of the previous two seasons.

After guiding the Pirates to a runner-up finish in Division 7, Gills is the 2017 Lee Central Coast Newspapers'  All-Area Softball Team Coach of the Year.

She was the unanimous pick among the LCCN sports staff.

"Absolutely, there was a time when the confidence kept increasing," Gills said by phone.

"These girls worked hard all year."

As the 2016 season wound down, "We told the girls, 'Hold on. The cavalry's coming,'" said Gills.

The cavalry did come. One 2017 Santa Ynez freshman, pitcher Armani Garcia, is the LCCN All-Area MVP. Another, Yesenia Vega, is on the All-Los Padres League First Team along with Garcia.

"We had five freshmen," on the 12-player roster, said Gills. "So when you're telling them about what they went through last year and how they're progressing this year, about half the team gets it."

Gills said that the travel ball connection was a big reason for the team's success.

"Most of our players play travel ball," said Gills. "Before, we only had maybe one or two players who did.

"With that level of experience, it's just very hard to compete with teams that have extensive travel ball experience, with teams that have players who have had hundreds more at bats than yours have. Most of the teams we played against had mostly players who had played travel ball."

Armani Garcia and her sister Stazia, who hit .400 for the Pirates in her senior season in 2017 (she was one of four holdovers from the 2016 team), have extensive travel ball playing experience.

Their father, Bennie Garcia, has extensive travel ball coaching experience. Gills convinced Bennie to help coach the team (in fact, he is listed as Gills' co-coach on the roster, though Gills seemed to act as the de facto head coach in multiple ways), and she said that was a huge boost to the program.

"At first, Bennie said no way," to coming on as a Santa Ynez coach, said Gills.

"He's a successful travel ball coach at the national level. Central Coast softball-wise, he's probably the most well-known coach there is. Then, at the high school level, he'd see our girls miss balls and get hit in the face with balls in warm-ups."

Finally, Denicia Gills said, Bennie Garcia decided he would help coach in 2016. "We joked that it was a one-year trial basis," Gills said.

After a winless 2016, Bennie Garcia stayed on and, Gills said, that provided the program with a huge lift.

"Every opponent we played, it seemed, had a player Bennie coached or coached against (in travel ball)," said Gills. "He's so well-known. All the umpires knew him."

Maggie Usher, a sophomore who went through Santa Ynez's winless 2016 as a freshman, hit .414 and led the team in RBIs (34) and home runs (seven) in 2017. She was the All-Area Team Offensive Player of the Year.

Jocelyn Castaneda, a freshman, hit .354. Alycia Lowery, a sophomore who Gills said is a transfer student, hit .329.

With that kind of contribution from their mixture of newcomers and vets, the Pirates' stock kept rising in 2017.

"At the beginning of the season we set one goal; finish fourth (in the Los Padres League) and make the playoffs," said Gills.

"Then we figured, 'Hey, we can do this. We have a chance to win the league championship.' That didn't happen (the Pirates tied Lompoc for second place), but we had an idea of what we could do.'"

Gill said, "Now that the hoopla (about the team's runner-up finish in Division 7) is over and things have settled in, we have an idea of what we need to do for next season."

There is a very good chance the Pirates will be able to build on what they did in 2017 in 2018. In 2017, Stazia Garcia was their only senior.


Sports Reporter