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Pirate softball is a family affair.

Head coach Benny Garcia has one daughter, Armani, as his star pitcher. He has another, former All-Los Padres League first baseman Anastazia, as his assistant coach.

“I coached a lot of these girls in travel ball for eight years and I was the Santa Ynez varsity assistant coach under (former head coach) Denicia Gills for the past three years,” said Garcia. “So these girls are all my family. But I have to keep things separate. Sometimes I’m dad, sometimes I’m coach.”

Because of the weather, the Pirates have been practicing indoors, inside Santa Ynez High’s Old Gym.

“We got outside some in the fall but we haven’t been able to go out on the field recently,” said Garcia. “We need to get outside, get some time on the field, run some bases. We’ve been getting a lot of rain which is good for the community – not for softball, but the community needs it. But we’re getting our work in and I think we’ll be okay after a couple preseason games.”

Garcia has most of his players back from last year including his starting pitcher and catcher back from the team that went 15-8-2 and 9-5 in the Los Padres League’s final season. That was good for a third-place finish behind Templeton and Lompoc.

Junior Armani Garcia, an All-League pitcher who was the Los Padres League’s Most Valuable Player in her freshman year and the LPL’s Most Valuable Pitcher last year, is back.

Senior Maggie Usher returns after an injury-plagued season to call the pitches behind the plate.

“Because the underhand throwing motion is easier on the pitcher’s arm, shoulder and elbow, one or two great pitchers can carry a team. Armani is older, stronger. She’s ready to lead us again. And Yesenia Vega is ready to pitch when we need her. She was our starting shortstop and backup pitcher last year and she’ll do that again. Yesenia is so versatile, she’ll also play third base and outfield when we need her,” said Benny Garcia. “And we’re excited to have Maggie back as our starting catcher. She was injured most of last year but she’s back and almost 100 percent. She’s also involved in high school rodeo, so she’s always a little banged up.”

“I’m good. I’m just coming off a big injury where I injured my back last year. I’m just a little dinged up right now. I tore some ligaments in my ankle in November, but now it feels good. I think I’m good to go for the season.”

Usher does double duty, splitting her time between softball and District 7 – The Magnificent 7 – high school rodeo.

“I’m leading the district in goat tying and breakaway roping and I’m fourth in pole bending and sixth in team roping,” said Usher, who is set to play both games of a recent doubleheader then head off to King City for a high school rodeo against Districts 4 and 6. “But I’m really excited to get the softball season started. I love being the catcher. It’s so much fun. You see the whole field. You’re involved in every single pitch, every play. You can’t back down on any play. Every pitch is so important.”

“I love having her back behind the plate,” said Armani Garcia. “It’s really important to have a steady catcher. They get to know how you like to pitch. Maggie helps me mix things up.”

Garcia isn’t a flamethrower. She likes to throw a mix of screwballs, curveballs and rise-balls.

“I hardly ever throw a fastball,” said Garcia. “I like to keep the other team off balance so I only throw fastballs once in a while.”

Sophomore Lauren Swing will start at first base, Nicole Atiles is set at second with Vega at short and Mckinnzie Grossini at third.

Michaela Baker, Molli Kadlec and Sabrina Harridge will patrol the outfield.

Savannah Martinez, Lilly Martinez, Kylie Johnson and Amaris Cabrera are the team’s key substitutes.

The new season brings one major change – the move, along with Lompoc and Cabrillo, to the Channel League.

“The Channel League is a harder league, a tougher league than the LPL,” said Benny Garcia. “We still have Lompoc and Cabrillo and those will be tough matchups, but playing against those Santa Barbara schools (Santa Barbara, Dos Pueblos and San Marcos) will be great matchups as well. But I think it will be better for us. You have to play better teams to improve.”

“Overall, the Channel League has better teams than the old LPL. If we play like we did last year, we’ll be okay,” said Armani Garcia. “Those bigger schools don’t intimidate me … intimidate us. They can’t pitch any faster; hit it any harder than we do. I’m really excited for the season.”

“This will be different because we don’t have to play the teams from up north in the league any more,” said Usher. “I’m looking forward to playing the new teams; teams with girls who have a different level of skills. We’ve never played the Santa Barbara schools before but we’re ready for it.”

“I’m looking forward to the season,” said Benny Garcia. “It’s going to be a lot more challenging but these girls are up to the challenge.”

After a 6-2 win over St. Joseph, the Pirates were scheduled to play at Santa Maria in a non-league game Monday afternoon. The Pirates are then set to host Lompoc in a Channel League game on Friday at 3:30 p.m.

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Senior Sports Reporter