Teams to watch
1. Ridgeland. Every starter returns from last year's team, which came within one win of making the state field. Keeping senior pitcher Jessie Forrester healthy is a huge key. The lineup is fierce with three .400-plus hitters from last year.
2. Gordon Lee. Six starters return from last year's Class A runner-up, including senior pitcher Jonia Taylor, the state's 2008 Class A pitcher of the year after going 24-7 with a 0.81 ERA.
3. Ringgold. The Lady Tigers have one of the state's best pitchers in senior Caty Sparks. First-year coach Rachel Hodge also will count on senior Haley Gibson, who is one of the team's top hitters along with Sparks.
Players to watch
1. Courtnee Hall, Ridgeland. Her return to health will be watched carefully, but if she's back to full strength, few can match the junior catcher's raw skills.
2. Caty Sparks, Ringgold. The three-year starting pitcher has developed into an all-around threat. She can blow batters away, outsmart them or do major harm at the plate.
3. Jonia Taylor, Gordon Lee. The reigning Class A pitcher of the year is back for her senior season and has improved in the circle and at the plate.
There is no need for name tags for the Ridgeland High School softball team. There's also no need to remind coach Scott Harden and his Lady Panthers that expectations are enormous.
While other successful northwest Georgia programs have huge holes to fill, Ridgeland returns every starter from last year's 21-win team, including at least four who will play in college. Harden understands the hype and hopes his team is ready to meet it.
"We've got to stay injury-free and stay competitive and consistent all the way through," he said. "We've got to be more versatile with our players. Early on, we want to get them in different spots so that if something does occur, they can be used to playing in that situation."
A trio of seniors - shortstop Haley Lawson (.507 average), first baseman Caitlyn Lance (.470) and pitcher Jessie Forrester (18 wins, 0.56 ERA, 203 strikeouts) - should lead the way, but the health of junior catcher Courtnee Hall might be the key. Hall became sick around the Christmas holidays, shortly after hitting .531 with seven homers last season, and missed the rest of the school year. Though doctors never diagnosed the problem, she is back and expected to play.
"She's working her way back," Harden said. "She's been through a lot, but she's determined to get back to full strength."
Harden also hopes last year's late-season slump will be a motivating factor with his experienced team. Lawson, for one, thinks it will.
"We should be the best out here if we compete," she said. "We just can't get big heads, which I think did happen a little last year. That proved we need to work hard every game and stay focused. With this being my senior year, I want to win the state."
Harden believes a change in the playoff format will help his team. In eliminating the state sectional round, the GHSA has patterned the softball postseason after baseball's, where four teams from each region make the playoffs. The top two teams will host, with the third and fourth seeds traveling. Higher seeds will host the second round, and the final eight will convene in Columbus.
"To me, it gets a little easier than it has been, and I like our chances to get in the playoffs," Harden said. "This year we've got the two-out-of-three series, and I like our chances with playing a team and somebody having to beat us two games."