The high school softball season is about to kick into high gear this weekend, as the Mid-Columbia Conference begins league play Friday.
Here are five things to watch the rest of this season:
1. Can Kamiakin make it three in a row?
When the Braves repeated as champions in 2013, they accomplished something only done four times in Class 3A since the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association sanctioned fastpitch in 1992.
The last big-school team to repeat was Kelso, which won Class 4A titles in 2009-10. No team above the Class 2A level has ever won three championships in a row.
Kamiakin coach Tim Bisson cant promise another title, but he loves what he has coming back this year, including four-year starters Melanie Oord (3B), Hunter Schneitter (2B), and twin sisters Carlie (OF) and Cylie Richards (SS).
Without a doubt, our strength lies in our senior leadership. They set a very high standard for all others to follow in our program, Bisson said. Our goals are to get better on a daily basis, compete at the higest level every day and play our best softball at the end of the year.
2. Will Richland High repeat as Mid-Columbia Conference champs?
Kamiakin may have consecutive Class 3A state titles in its pocket, but the Braves may not even be the best team in the MCC. That distinction could belong to Richland, which returns eight starters from a team that easily won the MCC and reached the Class 4A state quarterfinals in 2013.
Bombers catcher April Utecht, the MCC player of the year as a sophomore, leads five returning All-MCC first team performers that include first baseman Abby Perryman, shortstop Stephanie Merwin, outfielder Reilly Bramlett and designated hitter Kayla Andrews, who will also be Richlands No. 1 pitcher.
Bombers coach Casey Emery knows hes got the guns loaded. His biggest problem is keeping his team motivated.
Were trying to mix our practices up and emphasize that no one player is guaranteed a starting position, Emery said. We have 16 players practicing on varsity to create an environment of competition.
3. How strong is the MCC?
The top three teams Kamiakin, Richland and Walla Walla are top-10 worthy and deserve consideration among contenders for state titles.
Walla Walla will be highly motivated after being squeezed out of a state playoff berth in 2013. The Blue Devils return four All-MCC players, including first teamers in pitcher Ellie Rassbach and second baseman Jordy Storm.
But several other teams in the MCC have the ability to make a nice playoff run and possibly trophy at state.
One league coach considers Chiawana outfielder Whitney Weber one of the best in the state. Weber and Maddie Heine who have both signed to play in college will anchor an explosive Riverhawks offense, but the pitching might take more time to develop.
My pitching is young an inexperienced. They cant get down on themselves when they give up hits or get scored upon, Chiawana coach Paul Antonovich said. They have to know our offense will come back and answer.
Hanford and Southridge will fight it out for the Nos. 2 and 3 district seed in Class 3A. The Falcons, with All-MCC honorable mention returns Kayla De La Paz (P), MaKenna Hall (OF) and Kadi Patterson (1B), are expected to be one of the most improved teams in the area. The Suns bring back Jordan Ziemba, one of the MCCs best hitters.
Pasco is off to a strong start at 3-3, getting some help from OF Annabel Perez. Kennewick didnt have much luck finding wins in 2013, but a new coach Patti Flora has injected new life into the program.
(Kennewick) will surprise some teams this year, Bisson said. Hanford is playing at a high level, and Southridge is always a threat.
4. Small school success
In the CWAC, Othello has already turned heads, sweeping defending Class 2A champion Selah in an early-season doubleheader. The Huskies have to replace three all-league players, including MVP Kim Bullis, but return several strong players that should be able to carry the team back to state.
Connell has won the last three Class 1A state titles. Can they win another without Ashley Thompson, the Gatorade Player of the Year for Washington? Theyll have to replace five senior starters but the Eagles have plenty of talent coming back, including junior McKenna Mathis, who will have to fill Thompsons big shoes in the circle.
Columbia (Burbank), which earned its first state berth last season, graduated All-SCAC East pitcher Brittany Cotsford, but senior leaders Rachel Roberts and Christina Reisenauer should ease the pain of that loss.
In the 2B/1B ranks, DeSales returns Alyson Lyons, who helped anchor the Irishs run to state in 2013, and Dayton will be in the mix for the Southeast 2B title. But watch out for Tri-Cities Prep, which may challenge for its first state berth after returning every varsity player from last year.
This is the best team Ive ever had here at Prep. Our defense is very strong, probably the best in the league overall, Jaguars coach Dan Whitsett said. My biggest concern is that they live up to their abilities and learn how to be successful, something we havent had a lot of experience doing.
Prep will be led by catcher Victoria Nunez (.514 avg, 30 RBI), shortstop Mary Hoppes (30 steals) and pitcher/outfielder Victoria Vargas (.401 avg, 2.91 ERA).
5. State berths
The Class 4A regional tournament was a tough one to swallow with only two state berths. Unfortunately, that remains the same in 2014, but the Class 3A District 5/8 regional tournament will get a bump from two berths to three, ensuring that teams will get a chance to keep the title on the east side.
In the Class 2A ranks, District 5/6/7 teams will keep four berths, but Class 1A teams will drop from four state spots to just three.
Class 2B teams in District 9 will fight it out for three berths, while Class 1B will drop from two spots to only one.