It's not a clear-cut No. 1 to start the 2003 season, but the best combination of returning players, pitching, star power, strength of schedule and past success looks to be at Mission Bay of San Diego.

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(listed with last year's record)

1. Mission Bay (San Diego) 30-4

Although we're going with the Bucs to start out at No. 1 in the state, there's many in San Diego who no doubt think they aren't even No. 1 in their section, especially with Rancho Bernardo ready to field another top-notch team. But Mission Bay has everything you're looking for in a preseason No. 1. It's a program under coach Dennis Pugh (23 seasons) that's perennially strong. There's eight starters returning from a championship roster. There's a prominent player in junior SS/P Matt Bush, the 2002 State Sophomore of the Year. There's quality and depth coming back in the pitching corps. And there's even a transfer who should help in Eric Berg, a two-year starter coming in from La Jolla. In addition to Bush and Berg, senior Brock Ungricht (C), senior Jarett Suwyn (P/OF), sophomore Henry Sanchez (1B) and seniors George Andrade (3B), Adam Ricciardulli (OF) and Lorenzo Church (P) are other players to watch.

2. Camarillo 30-4

OK, Delmon Young is the Barry Bonds of high school baseball, except Delmon (who hit 17 homers last year) also is one of the best pitchers in the state, too. We just didn't think the rest of the returning lineup for the Scorpions was quite as strong as Mission Bay's, plus a CIF Southern Section preseason coaches ranking had Lakewood at No. 1 in Div. I, not Camarillo (the defending champ). With Delmon back alone, Camarillo deserves to be No. 1 in the L.A./Orange County/Ventura County metro area until it loses (sorry Lakewood). Coach Scott Cline notes that his No. 2 pitcher, Donald Brown, throws nearly 87 mph and went 3-for-3 in the CIFSS title game. Leadoff hitter Garrett Barlow was 16-of-17 on steals last year and hit .400. Also back are junior shortstop Todd Sandell and senior first baseman Doug McGee.

3. Lakewood 28-6

Coach Spud O'Neil should have one of his best teams yet as the Lancers welcome back most of last year's team that reached the CIF Southern Section Div. I final. The last two years the Lakewood freshmen have been unbeaten, too, so there's going to be a ton of depth O'Neil can tap into as well. No. 1 pitcher Jason Wanamaker tops the list of Lakewood returnees. Also on hand will be soph P/3B Justin Wheeler, leadoff hitter L.J. Davis (a second baseman), C Arnold Iribarren (moving in from the outfield), OF Allen Woods, and junior 1B Mike Carp, a slugger that pro scouts apparently have their eye on.

4. La Quinta (Westminster) 29-3

Outfielder Cole Garner has transferred in from Lakewood Artesia and combines with returning All-Americans Ian Kennedy and Ian Stewart to give coach Dave Demarest three of the nation's top 100 players. The Aztecs also will be bolstered from the return of infielder Blake Crosby, a .400 hitter, plus juniors Kevin Wauson and Brandon Laird. When Kennedy is pitching, La Quinta might be the best team in the nation. It's when he's not is what concerns Demarest the most. He says he's always had a consistent No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher, but this year he's not sure who will emerge for those roles.

5. Wilcox (Santa Clara) 34-3

It was a breakthrough year for the Chargers in 2002 as they set a school record for wins and won their first CIF Central Coast Section title. Only four seniors were on that team, so 2003 should see more of the same. Coach David Currie's top returnee is Darrell Sales, who went 9-0 as a pitcher last year and had a .417 average as a hitter. Pitching depth is a real strength for this team as Don Brandt and Jeff Gordon, both juniors, can bring the heat, too.

6. Rancho Bernardo (San Diego) 29-7

The Broncos are going to be eager to get back the league title that was taken away from them last year by Rancho Buena Vista. And with RBV losing almost all of its pitching, that should be doable. Coach Sam Blaylock's squad loses first round major league draft pick Cole Hamels, but another potentially high pick is coming back in outfielder/pitcher John Peabody. Another prime-time hurler is Brandon Burke.

7. Mater Dei (Santa Ana) 23-7

If you check out college signing lists, the Monarchs quickly would come to the forefront as one of this year's top teams. All-State Underclass returnee Daniel Perales is headed to USC, but the outfielder is not the only Mater Dei player who can hit. First baseman Tim Stewart had several multi-homer games last season and has signed with UC Irvine. Also bound for the next level is P Armando Carrasco (Cal St Fullerton), 2B Louie Hernandez (UC Riverside) and P Robert DellaGrotta (Pepperdine).

8. Mitty (San Jose) 26-6

Coach Bill Hutton says there are seven Div. I college players on his roster, led by seniors Robert Perry (OF/P), Danny Dressman (OF/P) and Tyler Duran (2B/P). Perry and Dressman were two of the top players in the CCS last season and Perry was the CCS Co-Junior Player of the Year. He and Duran are headed to Santa Clara. Dressman has signed with Notre Dame. Duran is a transfer from Fremont of Sunnyvale and was one of the top juniors in the CCS last year. This year's junior class at Mitty is led by 3B Ryan Conan and 1B Pat Ferguson. The sophomores are loaded as well with Jason Codiroli (P) and Jason Haniger (C).

9. Capistrano Valley (Mission Viejo) 20-8

Coach Bob Zamora's program was the CIF Southern Section Div. I champs in 2000 and 2001 and this year's team could be better. Pitching-wise, the Cougars return junior phenom Jason Corder and well as Univ. of California recruit Carter Wystrach. The position players aren't too shabby, either, as shortstop Adam Sorgi is bound for Stanford and big things are expected from 2B Gary Gattis and OF Lauren Deans. Gavin Fabian, a senior who's going to Princeton, will add even more pitching depth.

10. Madera 16-12

The Coyotes will certainly be the most imposing team in the state whenever they walk onto a field as it will seem like the entire team stands 6-foot-4 or taller. The only drawback to not ranking Madera higher is the 12 losses from last year. Coach Andy Zavorek's top returnee is 6-5 Andy Underwood, who was 10-1 on the hill as a junior and also had a .390 average as the team's No. 3 hitter. Gary Moran, a 6-9 senior, hit for the cycle in one game last year and can throw in the upper 80s. Leadoff hitter Brian Lapin (6-5) and P/OF Richie Wilkins (6-6-5) are two other seniors who may eventually land Div. I college scholarships. The entire pitching staff and six position players are returning from last year.

11. Serra (San Mateo) 25-7

The Padres will give Mitty all it can handle in the West Catholic Athletic League. They have one of the best one-two pitching combos around with junior Chuck Lofgren (8-3, 1.93) and senior Al Orozco (7-1, 3.09). Lofren also hit over .500 last year en route to earning CCS Sophomore of the Year honors.

12. Crescenta Valley (La Crescenta) 23-4

Only four seniors were on the roster for the Falcons last season, who were in the top 10 for most of 2002. Among the returnees is sophomore 3B/P Trevor Bell, who was the State Freshman of the Year. Others to watch include SS Kyle Barratt, 2B Aaron McGuinness (the quarterback from the football team) and pitchers Adam Schaller and Andy Marrero.

13. Villa Park 24-7

New coach Scott Luke has inherited a team that is the defending champions from the CIF Southern Section's Div. II playoffs and also has been listed No. 1 in that division in a ranking from the section's coaches.

14. Chatsworth 25-6

Junior OF Jason Dominguez is the headlining returnee for the Chancellors. They've been the top program in the L.A. City Section in recent years and will be involved in one of the best league races anywhere as El Camino Real of Woodland Hills and Cleveland of Reseda could turn out to be just as good or better.

15. Peninsula (Rolling Hills Est.) 20-9

Junior Andy Beal can pitch and hit among the best in the nation from his class. He almost matched Camarillo and Delmon Young pitch-for-pitch in a playoff game last season. The Panthers have another honors candidate in their midst in returning shortstop Joe Persichina.

16. Buchanan (Clovis) 26-6

Five of the nine starters from last year's CIF Central Section Yosemite Division final are back, led by all-state SS Jason Donald, the son of head coach Tom Donald. Jason, who has signed with Arizona, will pitch quite a bit this season as well. Four-year starter Brett Prieto returns to catch and 2B Dallas Kawakami is an effective DP combo with Donald. Coach Donald says a junior coming on strong is 6-3, 215-pound Dominick Foster, who will take on the catching duties next year but will be used in several different positions this spring.

17. La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad) 27-6

San Diego Section coaches who were contacted about the coming season all had good things to say about the Mavericks, who were in the state top 20 for most of 2002.

18. Merced 24-14

Eddie Gamboa was the pitching ace who led the Bears to last year's CIF Sac-Joaquin Section championship. Eddie returns this year and along with junior P/1B Logan Wiens hopes that this time a Central California Conference championship will precede another section crown.

19. Bishop Amat (La Puente) 28-2

How can we not slip in the Lancers' somewhere in the top 20? Last year's State Team of the Year has suffered heavy graduation losses -- chiefly P Adam Simon, INF Mike Lange and C Jordon Swaydon -- but Amat has such a track record of success it deserves some consideration until it loses a few times on the field.

20. Valencia 22-6

The Vikings were another young team from last season that impressed us enough to give them a slot in this year's preseason top 20. They could move up, too, since they play in a competitive league vs. the likes of Canyon Country Canyon and Newhall Hart and a lot of wins in that league is saying something. Matt Aidem, a promising first baseman who was one of the state's top sophomores last year, is among the returnees.

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