Class AAA: In addition to Ooltewah, figure Walker Valley, with first baseman Caleb Longley, catcher Josh Poole and third baseman Kamren Barnes leading the way, will push the Owls. Soddy-Daisy, a one-senior team that likely will start a couple of freshmen, will find out quickly what it's made of.
Class AA: Central has three quality pitchers (Colton Morgan, Dominique Dawson and Tristan Wood) and graduated only two starters from the 2012 team that made the district final. State-tournament participant Red Bank graduated only one, and the Lions have versatile pitcher/outfielder Hagen Wilkey; hard-hitting first baseman/catcher Tyler Phillips, who is coming off knee surgery; and catcher/pitcher Gage Winton. Notre Dame, led by pitcher/shortstop Nick Chambers, pitcher/third baseman Alex Darras and catcher Grayson Hargett, also should be quite capable.
Class A: It looks like the Whitwell-Marion County rivalry will have new life this year. Coaches seem to be split on who'll come out on top in District 6-A. South Pittsburg was hit hard by graduation after a state tournament appearance, and Lookout Valley is very young. It's possible also that defending champ Boyd-Buchanan will receive a serious challenge from Silverdale Baptist in District 5-A.
Division II: Most East/Middle coaches are picking the Brentwood Academy/Battle Ground Academy series winner to win the region with McCallie finishing third ahead of Baylor.
1. Dakota Hudson, Sequatchie County: He possesses a 90-plus-mph fastball and a Mississippi State scholarship, and he's coming off a 2012 season in which he struck out 74 in 46 innings while allowing just 24 hits.
2. Kevin Dupree, Ooltewah: He was among the Owls leaders in several offensive categories in 2012 -- including home runs, doubles and RBIs -- and struck out 55 and walked just 18 in 47 innings pitched.
3. Spencer Mossburg, Silverdale Baptist: He threw 63 innings a year ago with a 1.22 ERA and 102 strikeouts. He was third among Seahawks hitters with a .370 average, and his 34 hits and 40 runs scored led the team.
The heat is on, although the first official pitch likely won't be thrown until Tuesday, once the rain predicted for Monday clears out.
Ooltewah is the high school baseball team to beat this year in the Chattanooga area, at least north of the Georgia border.
"Number one is pitching," Soddy-Daisy coach Jared Hensley responded when asked why he was painting the bull's-eye on Brian Hitchcox's Owls. "They have three or four guys, maybe not top-of-the-draft guys but technically three [NCAA] Division I guys."
The primary mound work for the Owls will fall to four seniors and a junior. They're led by MTSU-bound Kevin Dupree, who originally committed to Tennessee; Zach Thompson, who committed to Tennessee Tech and then changed his mind; and Jackson McClain, who has committed to Yale; along with Drew Williams, who has signed to play infield for Lee University.
There actually are seven players returning who pitched for the Owls last year with Chase Morrissey, junior Logan Fugate and Jared Ryan included. The seven combined for a 2.84 earned run average, 19 wins and 160 strikeouts in 187 innings.
"We do have all of our [primary] pitching back, but we have new faces in new places and it remains to be seen what they'll do when the lights are turned on," Hitchcox said. "The way I look at our guys is we have five [pitchers] that on any given day could beat a lot of teams. We're just going to try to line them up based on matchups and rest, and wherever it falls, it falls. We won't have Monday-Tuesday [district-game] guys."
Shoulder surgery already has cost the Owls Kyle Kapherr, who would have been their starting shortstop, and pitcher/first baseman Ryan is coming off surgery and will be handled with kid gloves before he gets on the mound.
The Owls will miss T.J. Binder, who's taking a Troy University redshirt despite hitting .430 last fall; middle infielder Cody Rhinehart, who's tearing it up at Bryan College; and Drew Toth, who signed with Tennessee Tech.
"Those may be the best three defensive players I've coached," Hitchcox said.
Yet the coach's biggest dilemma may be working out the lineup, depending on who's pitching.
"The [pitchers] have been through the wars," he said. "We just have to figure out how our team is best when each person is on the mound."
Ooltewah opens the season with Soddy-Daisy -- a scheduled Monday home game and a Tuesday night visit to the Trojans -- and the two have been in the mix for the District 5-AAA title for years. The accepted practice of rotating the schedule has them going from the last series of the year to the first.
"I love playing those guys. It's just a little more fun when it's toward the end of the year," Hensley said. "But the district is probably going to be a bloodbath from the get-go."
Hitchcox, perhaps to deflect attention from his squad, pointed the finger right back at Soddy-Daisy and added Walker Valley and Cleveland to his favorites list, mentioning Cleveland left-hander Jake Wyrick as a likely season MVP. He also added that East Hamilton, the Owls' big rival in the northeast part of the county, might well be Hamilton County's best team.