Skania Lemus looks to throw during a recent practice. Top Mater Dei players are back and the freshmen are the best the school has had. Peggy Peattie • U-T
CHULA VISTA To Mike Centrullo, whose Lady Crusaders at Mater Dei Catholic High School have won two straight CIF softball championships, leading the program at the Chula Vista campus is not unlike his regular job overseeing remodeling projects for a San Diego design company.
A design consultant wrapping up a $1 million renovation that is turning a pedestrian Bay Park home into a stunning architectural showcase, Centrullo meets regularly with clients, develops and reviews drawings and oversees virtually everyone working on the endeavor.
Much like how he took a lifeless softball program that played its games at an aging Imperial Beach school and helped turn it into a juggernaut on the cusp of a dynasty that now hosts its contests at a modern, $80 million education center.
“There are a lot of similarities,” he said. “My job here is motivating people, overseeing my coaching staff, overseeing my players, overseeing them as individuals, seeing how I can help them, and making everything come out as best it can.”
He’s doing something right.
In 2010 the Lady Crusaders defeated No. 1 seed Christian High School to win the San Diego CIF Division IV softball title. Last year, the team came from behind just three outs from elimination to best No. 1 seed Madison High – which was undefeated at the time — and win its second consecutive crown.
The 2010 Lady Crusaders dedicated its season to the late Estelle Kassebaum, a longtime principal and president at the school. The 2011 squad dedicated its season to the memory of assistant coach Perry Burgess, who died of a heart attack less than a month into competition. This year’s season is dedicated solely to trying to secure a three-peat.
“We have a strong returning core led by two seniors, our juniors and sophomores have the experience of winning a championship before, and we have the best freshman class we’ve ever had,” Centrullo said.
“I feel really good. Our goal is to win the third one. That’s our mindset. We’re going to have to work harder to do it, no doubt, because everybody’s going to be gunning for us. But we have one goal in mind and we’re going to do our best to reach it.”
There will be some challenges. Despite seeing his team win its season opener, 13-1, against La Jolla High, Centrullo has his concerns. “Offensively, we have to be more selective at the plate,” he said. “Defensively, we have to be sharper and quicker on our reactions.
“We’re going to see some better hitting teams along the way, and that may expose some flaws.”
Still, this team is stocked with talent.
Star pitcher Maritza Lopez-Portillo — who is drawing interest from Villanova and the University of Maryland — is back, as is shortstop Skania Lemus, a junior who won last year’s CIF Sportsmanship Award. Junior catcher Kim Tamayo has already committed to playing at San Diego State. And the vaunted freshman class includes pitcher Alexis Morales, third-baseman Reyna Jamison, shortstop Anissa Carillo and catcher Amanda Idiaquez.
“We have a well-balanced team,” Centrullo said.
The Mater Dei coach has earned the respect of his peers.
“Mike is a good guy and he has a really good demeanor,” said Madison Coach Tay Sneddon. “One of the greatest compliments you could pay a coach is to say that if you had a daughter, you wouldn’t mind her playing for that coach. I can safely say that I would have no problem whatsoever if my daughter was coached by Mike.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Lady Crusaders play in an eye-opening stadium.
“It’s like a quality, minor league ballpark,” Sneddon said. “It’s not difficult to convince girls to go there.”
It’s a long way from where the team was when Centrullo first took over in 1999. At that time Mater Dei was known as Marian Catholic High School and was situated in Imperial Beach. Centrullo, a former Bonita Valley Girls Softball League president, was told the school was looking for a junior varsity coach. He dropped by and had a look at the squad. He wasn’t impressed. Next thing he knew, Kassebaum was offering Centrullo a job to head the varsity team.
A lot of people have put a lot of work into the program, and Centrullo is quick to note the contributions of his coaches, including former Eastlake head coach and Temple University player Aida Esquer; Dave Girard; Thomas Abyeta; Duke Gonzalez; Hal Andreoli; Mike Cruse; and Johnny Tamayo. Together with manager Amber Baker, the staff has built a program that is drawing attention.
“We have this beautiful campus, and we’re building up a tradition,” Centrullo said. “It’s getting easier to get people to come here.”