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Amanda Llerena takes over as the Seawolves’ ace in place of record-breaking great Samantha Lipperd. (Brandon Bronzan / Sonoma State University Athletics)

Amanda Llerena takes over as the Seawolves’ ace in place of record-breaking great Samantha Lipperd. (Brandon Bronzan / Sonoma State University Athletics)

By MICHAEL COIT

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Winning has become a habit for the Sonoma State softball team, with the goal of making the postseason once again when the regular season starts next week.

Sonoma State could be in line for a sixth straight NCAA postseason tournament trip. The Seawolves are projected to finish third in the California Collegiate Athletic Association in a preseason vote of the conference’s coaches.

Amanda Llerena takes over as the Seawolves’ ace in place of record-breaking great Samantha Lipperd. (Brandon Bronzan / Sonoma State University Athletics)

Returning a handful of starters who were among last year’s top hitters, Sonoma State looks to pressure opponents with aggressive base running and rely on tight defense to back up Seawolves pitchers.

“We feel really strong this year. But the conference is going to be a challenge,” said coach Jennifer Bridges, in her fifth season leading Sonoma State.

Defending CCAA regular-season and tournament champion Humboldt State is the top pick again after reaching the NCAA Division II Women’s College World Series a year ago. Humboldt State finished the 2013 campaign No. 5 in the NCAA Division II rankings.

Following the Lumberjacks in the current coaches’ poll is UC San Diego. Picked fourth behind Sonoma State is Cal State Monterey Bay.

With the top five or six conference teams all strong, the CCAA again will test pitching depth and reward squads that win the close contests.

Expected to lead Sonoma State’s pitching is Amanda Llerena, who takes over as the staff ace in place of record-breaking great Samantha Lipperd.

The sophomore from San Jose was very effective a year ago.

With an earned-run average matching Lipperd’s for fourth in the conference, Llerena also completed 16 games with four shutouts.

Behind her are returning reliever Katy Bihl, from Newark, and Melissa Smith, a newcomer from South Lake Tahoe expected to be the No. 2 starter.

At the plate, Sonoma State aims to repeat as the CCAA’s top hitting team.

Sonoma State led the conference in batting and triples, was second in on-base percentage, hits, runs batted in, doubles and total bases, and third in runs and home runs.

While the Seawolves likely lack much long ball pop, the lineup is strong.

Sonoma State returns four of its top six hitters from a year ago.

Speedy shortstop Ancia Purdy was a top 10 conference hitter last season and led the CCAA in stolen bases. Purdy, from Huntington Beach, was an All-Conference First Team selection.

Third baseman Hayley Condon, a Santa Monica native, was an All-West Region Second Team and All-Conference Second Team selection.

The top returning power hitters are Holli Brown and Keisi Chinen. Brown, a second baseman from Fremont, was third on the team in both home runs and RBIs.

Chinen, a catcher from Pleasant Hill, was second in home runs and fourth in RBIs last season.

Sonoma State led the conference in stolen bases and returns the squad’s top three base stealers.

With experience up the middle of the diamond, Sonoma State should be strong on defense.

“You need to focus on that in this conference,” Bridges said.

Still, those returning starters are being pushed by teammates, including a talented group of newcomers, giving Sonoma State greater depth this season. The lineup will be determined in early season contests.

“We still have a lot of girls fighting for positions. It’s definitely a good thing to have,” Bridges said.

Sonoma State opens play at home Wednesday against Dominican, out of the Pacific West Conference, in a doubleheader.

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