Danielle Lung, Clovis softball
When Danielle Lung was a wide-eyed freshman, one could certainly see the legacy already forming when she stepped into the circle in the D-I Valley championship game – the biggest and brightest stage in the Central Section. The hard-throwing, 15-year old pitched with fire and gusto and proceeded to throw a no-hitter, a 2-0 gem against Central. Three years later, Lung cemented herself as one of the greats in Central Section history, on her future field no less – Margie Wright Diamond at Fresno State – when the senior mowed down Buchanan in order in the top of the 7th inning to capture the 2018 D-I Valley title in a 6-3, complete game victory. The win was the third title in four years for Clovis, Lung earning the win in all three, completing the 2018 season with a remarkable 25-0 pitching record, tops in Central Section history.
Lung put Clovis softball back in the state and national conversation in 2018 as her team finished 30-2, ranked No. 3 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and No. 15 in the nation by MaxPreps. During her four years, Clovis went 113-19 with three league championships. Her career stats are mind-boggling: a 92-9 record, 945 strikeouts, 133 walks, 39 shutouts, 648.3 innings pitched, holding opponents to a 0.157 BA and an ERA of 0.99. Think of the greatest softball pitchers in Central Section history – Amanda Scott and Jamie Southern of Clovis, Courtney Dale and Marissa Marzan of Bullard – well, those standouts never won three Valley titles in four years like Lung.
Cougars head coach Mike Noel bared witness to every one of Lung’s starts: “Every time Danielle was in the circle, she gave her teammates a good chance to win. I don’t think you can ask anything more from a pitcher. It was like she said, ‘Find a way to score us a couple of runs and I’ll do the rest.’ When your defense only has to make plays on literally 50 percent of all at-bats (270 strikeouts in 544 opponent at bats) that takes a lot of pressure off.”
Kyle Merchen, Buchanan volleyball
Setters normally don’t get all the volleyball love. Praise and glory oftentimes goes to the heavy hitters, those dudes who can jump three-feet and pound it down, igniting crowds and intimidating the opposition. However, every championship-caliber team needs the glue, the perfect balance between level-headed but yet a vocal leader, and Buchanan’s Kyle Merchen fit the mold perfectly. The senior setter was a part of an unprecedented four D-I Central Section Valley championships in four years – the final one at home on May 14, a classic five-game set against Clovis that saw Merchen register a season-high 48 assists.
This year, the savvy-minded Merchen took his game to another level as the 6-foot-3 setter tallied 997 assists in 104 sets for a 9.6 per set average with only 28 ball handling errors. He also featured a powerful serve, registering 58 aces for the 28-8 Bears that finished ranked No. 10 in the state and No. 15 in the nation by MaxPreps. Merchen is headed to Concordia University on a volleyball scholarship and in 2016 competed for the U.S. Boys Youth National Team in Havana, Cuba. In his four years, along with the four Valley titles, the Bears were a combined 116-30.
If one wants to know how valuable a player really is, all you have to do is ask one of their teammates – they’ll be honest. Fellow senior and outside hitter Spencer Heimerdinger raved about the guy who set up the vast majority of his 297 kills: “Whether providing valuable insight or providing inspiration for the team to get going, he was able to do it all. His captainning and guidance was the engine that made our team go.”
Buchanan head coach John Jay put it this way: “Kyle is like fine wine … he gets better with age. The guys all respect him and he does a good job being team captain and has a high volleyball IQ.”