SALT LAKE CITY — The high school softball season kicks into high gear this week with many teams flocking to St. George to participate in the March Warm-up Elite Tournament, and a bunch more next week.
With the advent of RPI rankings for playoff seeding, the games can hardly be characterized as warmup anymore. Every game matters now, especially with the changing state tournament format where higher seeding is a huge advantage in the early rounds.
As the season gets underway, Bingham, Spanish Fork, Tooele, Grantsville and Gunnison Valley were all dubbed the preseason favorite in their respective classifications in the Deseret News softball preseason coaches rankings.
Of last year’s five preseason No. 1s, only Herriman and Grantsville went on to win state championships, so anything can happen.
Here’s a closer look at each classification heading into the 2020 season:
How do you make a strong region stronger? You add two other region champions to the mix.
There’s exactly how Region 3 was reshaped in the latest UHSAA realignment, with West and Bingham joining juggernaut holdovers Copper Hills, Herriman and Riverton.
Between the five programs they’ve won state championships in the largest classification the past four years. And last year West won the 5A title and Herriman the 6A title, which gives the region two defending state champs.
Riverton was tabbed the preseason favorite by the Region 3 coaches, but with the talent in the southwest end of Salt Lake Valley, anything can happen.
“We are going to have a great team this year and it’s going to be fun to watch them grow and develop as a whole,” said Riverton coach Katelyn Elliott. “It will be a dogfight in our region for the region title due to the strength of teams our region holds. We are excited to get going.”
Copper Hills will be right in the mix led by returning first team all-staters Makaiya Gomez and Alyxx Estrada.
The duo helped Copper Hills post a 4-2 record at the Tournament of Champions in Laughlin, Nevada, last week and will be key senior leaders on a relatively young team.
“As always, our keys to success will be coming together as a team and avoiding the letdowns that could come with the new RPI system, not being concerned with how other teams are ranking out, and playing from the first pitch to the last pitch of the season,” said Copper Hills coach John Flores.
Defending state champion Herriman is led by Aubree Hogan, who was a first team all-stater at Bingham last year and returning second team all-stater Alexis Smith.
The Mustangs also participated in the Tournament of Champions last weekend, posting a 3-3 record.
Despite the departure of Hogan to Herriman, Bingham still has some great returning talent led by returning all-staters Emily Dority and Averity Hanny, both juniors and both pitchers.
Alayna Haas is the lone senior for Bingham which will need to grow up quickly.
While many will be focused on Region 3, and for good reason, Region 1 fields some very strong teams as well, led by Clearfield, Fremont, Davis and last year’s 6A runner-up Layton.
“Our region is strong and honestly, anything can happen. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day from top to bottom and I think that says a lot about the coaches and the athletes we have here up north in 6A,” said Clearfield coach Karly Bates.
The top returning individuals from Region 1 are Fremont senior Rylie Bennett and Davis senior Kya Wilmott, both of whom were first team all-staters a year ago.
While realignment will have an impact on 6A, it will likely have an even bigger impact on 5A.
West and Roy were two of the final three teams remaining in last year’s 5A tourney, but they’re both now participating in 6A. Among the teams replacing them are Lehi and Spanish Fork, last year’s runner-up in 4A.
Bountiful was the 5A runner-up to West last year, and after losing twice to the Panthers on the final day this experienced team is hungry to get back there.
“Bountiful should be strong with seven seniors and five pitchers,” said Bountiful coach Butch Latey, who said from the top to the bottom of his lineup he has batters who can hit over .300.
Leading the way for the Braves are senior returning all-staters Libbie Hawker and Sophia Stoddard. Hawker is a speedy outfielder and Stoddard is a power-hitting catcher.
Also back is senior shortstop Dashani Purcell, who didn’t play last year but was a first team all-stater as a sophomore.
Pushing Bountiful within its own region is second-year Farmington led by sophomore standout Delaney Baker, who hit eight home runs and struck out 120 batters in last year’s all-state season.
“We are looking forward to another great year. This year we are coming back extremely young and looking forward to seeing how our hard work pays off,” said Farmington coach Jacey Fatongia.
Spanish Fork was actually pegged the preseason No. 1 after polling all the 5A coaches.
The Dons have a new coach as former assistant coach Natalie Jarvis takes over for retiring legendary coach Don Andrews, and Jarvis is excited to keep the tradition going.
“We have a young team this year with only one senior which makes me excited for not only this year but the future of Spanish Fork.”
Spanish Fork was a runner-up to Tooele in 4A last season, and its top returning player is returning junior all-state shortstop Brooklyn Pintar, who batted .455 last year.
Wasatch, led by first-year coach Morgan Summers, and Springville will push the Dons in a tough Region 8.
Springville is led by junior returning all-state pitcher McKenna Thomas, while Wasatch is led by sophomore pitcher Payge Armendariz.
Lehi was pegged the Region 7 favorite as it bumps up from 4A, while Murray was picked to finish first in Region 6 with the departure of West to 6A.
“We are excited for this upcoming season. We return two all-state players and leaders, and have added a few new key components to our program. We hope to surprise some people this year, and if we all do our jobs, our ceiling is very high,” said Murray coach Dani McKay.
Tooele rode the arm of sophomore Attlyn Johnston to a state title a year ago, and with her return this season it’s no secret who the favorite is again.
Johnston struck out 288 batters last year and finished with a 0.448 ERA. She might even be better this year with an extra year’s worth of experience.
Also back for Tooele are contributors Bryerly Avina, Kate Hogan, Kennedie Anderson and Paige Rydalch.
With Spanish Fork no longer in the classification, other teams who will push Tooele this year are powerhouse Bear River along with Snow Canyon, Cedar City, Stansbury and Ridgeline.
“We have a strong core of seniors. They have all committed to play at the next level,” said Bears coach Calvin Bingham, who’s entering his 21st season at Bear River. “In addition, we have a strong group of juniors and sophomores and at this point we have several options for varsity players. Our pitching should be one of our strengths. We have some sophomores and freshmen who look really good.”
Oaklee Trapp is a returning first team all-state first baseman for the Bears, who went 12-0 in Region 12 last year.
Another perfect region season will be tough with Ridgeline in the hunt as well.
“We will have four solid seniors returning that should provide the base of our team. They have strong leadership skills and have experience from last year’s state tournament,” said Ridgeline coach Michael Anderson.
No team from Southern Utah has played in the state championship game since 2011 with Canyon View, a trend Region 9 hopefuls Cedar City, Snow Canyon and Desert Hills hope to change this year.
The Reds are buoyed by returning all-state seniors Japrix Weaver and Denim Henkel, while Emma Bingham was a second team all-stater last year Snow Canyon.
Desert Hills may have the ultimate secret weapon though, former Grantsville coach Heidi Taylor, who led Grantsville to three straight 3A titles before moving south.
“We will look to our seniors for leadership and positive attitudes along with a strong work ethic and a desire to be their best,” said Taylor. “The underclassmen have big shoes to fill as we lost many great players to graduation and the split with Crimson Cliffs this last year.”
Despite Taylor’s departure from Grantsville, don’t expect a drop-off from the three-time state champs as coach Tony Cloward takes over.
Four of Grantsville’s five all-staters last year were underclassmen, including reigning MVP Maddie Peterson. With her dominance on the mound, and then Bailey Frischknecht, Laura Sandberg and Breana Hiatt also back the Cowboys will be tough to beat.
“New coaching staff will have a lot talent to implement their philosophy mixed with old traditions. Players have embraced the changes and will be a force again in 3A,” said Cloward.
Grantsville’s only loss to a 3A team all season was to Manti in the third game of the state tournament. It circled back to win five straight games en route to the title, including beating Manti twice in the championship.
To get back to the championship, Manti coach Susan Hatch said some newcomers will need to step up after the graduation of five key seniors.
“Leadership from this year’s upperclassmen is needed to help the team perform at the level that is needed to be a top five team this year,” said Hatch.
All three of Manti’s first team all-staters graduated, but Katie Larsen, Brynlee Golding and Kassidy Alder were second-teamers as underclassmen and big things are expected from them.
North Sanpete and Grand advanced to the final four of 3A last year and will be right in the thick of the classification again.
“Like most years, 3A has some very strong teams that will make it extremely competitive. We have a very talented group of players returning this year and we hope with some hard work and a little luck we can make a deep run in the state tournament,” said North Sanpete coach Landon Bailey.
Nakiah Taylor and Addelyn Brotherson are key returners for the Hawks.
Grand returns just about all of its top players from 2019, including first-teamer Jaci Shumway.
Many of the standout players in 2A graduated after last season, but the usual suspect of contenders each have enough familiar faces back that it should be another exciting, unpredictable season in the state’s smallest classification.
Returning champ Enterprise returns first team all-stater Jessica Chambers, as well as Shaylee Reber and Dykell Jones.
Last year’s MVP Allie Laub transferred to Crimson Cliffs.
“We lost a lot of players from last year, but feel like we have some girls that will step up and fill those spots,” said Enterprise second-year coach Katye Jones.
The Wolves marched through last year’s state tournament with a perfect record, including wins over Beaver and Gunnison Valley in the final two rounds.
Those three teams figure to be the top contenders again.
Gunnison is led by returners Maddie Edwards and Gracy Christenson, while Beaver’s top returning players are Madi Robinson and Kenzlee Carter.
Duchesne is the preseason favorite in the northern region, as it’s led by Kelsey Woodhouse and Josilynn Farnsworth.
“We are excited about our returning players as well as the development of the young players. It is going to be a tough schedule and some very good teams but we feel confident that we will be battling in every game,” said Duchesne coach Chuck Woodhouse.