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

USC commit Augie Lopez of Loyola hit five home runs as a junior and is even stronger for his senior year.
USC commit Augie Lopez of Loyola hit five home runs as a junior and is even stronger for his senior year. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

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."

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

"I'm staying selective," Lopez said.

All eight coaches in the league said they would take 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 three-hour 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.

There are 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. He's also going to bat for the first time in high school. Coach Jared Halpert said it was his mistake to not let Marsten hit before after seeing what he can do at the plate during the offseason. "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 Caltech. 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 for Dean West (now at UCLA) as the leadoff hitter. So far, so good in winter games.

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

Pitcher Hailey Shuler of Sierra Canyon.
Pitcher Hailey Shuler of Sierra Canyon. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

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 former club teammate Ella Parker of Notre Dame, now at Oklahoma.

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What will life be 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."

Junior Sarah Jacobs is back to pitch for the Knights after productive freshman and sophomore seasons.

Louisville has California Baptist commit Bella Wellbaum. Sierra Canyon's Nina Peyton Johnson announced she committed to California.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.