For years, Lone Oak, Reidland and Heath dominated the First Region like a three-headed monstrous Hydra. Now the three powers have combined to form a fully loaded McCracken County softball behemoth that many in the area have pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the region and also may wind up claiming the state title in June.
"The biggest thing everybody was worried about was how the girls would come together with three schools and all the starters that were coming back for all three," Lady Mustangs coach Tony Hayden said. "We actually have 24 starters on the team that played every game last year for their teams and we have to cut that to nine players plus the flex player, while most schools are worried about filling their starting lineup. There are those who are saying in couldn't be done, but we showed them last weekend at the Big M Chevrolet Tournament."
It was at that tournament that McCracken County (10-3), then No. 2 ranked in the Kentucky Softball Coaches Association poll, beat preseason top-ranked Greenwood 8-0 en route to going 6-0 and winning the event in Elizabethtown with a 9-1 victory over Owensboro. The win over Greenwood and the Lady Mustangs' play propelled them to the top of the current KSCA poll.
Leading the way for now No. 1 McCracken County is a four-strong pitching rotation led by senior Neely Quint and anchored by sophomores Jenny Chapman, Audrey Dodd and Hannah Ridolfi.
"There's no doubt that pitching is the number one asset for the team, period," Hayden said. "I don't know if any team in the state can say they have four quality pitchers that come in and win every game with this team behind them. There's pressure on them to throw well and so far they have thrown well. But they are the biggest part of our team."
Carlisle County won the First District Tournament last year in dominating fashion by beating Fulton County 12-2 and Fulton City in the championship game 15-5.
The Lady Comets return virtually everyone from last year's team and only have two seniors listed on their roster against a makeup of two seventh-graders, five eighth-graders and six freshmen.
Hickman County will also be in the hunt.
Paducah Tilghman coach Carl Johnson knows how tough it will be just to get out of the Second District and into the region tournament because of the new district comprised of McCracken County and St. Mary.
"McCracken County has about 25 starters back that played last year and St. Mary is going to be tough, too," Johnson said.
"But this year we don't have to beat three teams to get into region. We just have to beat one of them."
The Blue Tornado, off to an 8-0 start this season, return all nine starters from last year's team and will be led by junior pitcher Karlee Humphrey, who will be backed up by sophomore Kayla Slagle. Tilghman will also feature sophomore OF/C Chantell Driver, eighth-grader 3B Mallory Myers and sophomore SS Shaelyn Tyler.
St. Mary will be led by sophomore pitcher Rachel Denkins, senior IF Alex Durbin and senior SS Kelly Word.
First-year Graves County coach Stan Waller takes over a Lady Eagles program that is in a slightly reconfigured district with the move of St. Mary to the Second District. But it will still compete with Mayfield and Ballard Memorial for the Third District crown.
Waller feels Graves County has a chance to break through if and when it gets into the region tournament.
"We feel like we're in the hunt for the regional title thanks to our three seniors and their leadership and because we return all nine starters," he said. "Casey Wade, our senior pitcher, has been through the battles before and we're going to ride her arm this season. If she can perform at the level we expect her to we feel we have a shot to beat anybody, including McCracken County and Marshall County, who should be the front-runners in the region this year."
Along with Wade, the Lady Eagles also feature senior SS Kaylynn Jackson, senior CF Taylor Clark and three sophomores, C Dana Adkins, 3B Lindsey Whitlock and 2B Sarah Watts.
Mayfield returns its entire team, including seniors Amanda Avina, McKenzie Burgess and Allison Scarbrough.
Ballard Memorial will be led by three pitchers, junior Rebekah Hogancamp and Ashleigh Tyson and eighth-grader Rianah Fields.
Marshall County coach Kara Hamby says the Lady Marshals will have a tougher time winning the district this year, but likes her team's chances to repeat.
"The district the past few years has been fairly easy for us, but that's far from the case this year with Murray, and their new head coach, and Calloway County has really improved. So it's going to be a tough race. I don't see any blowouts coming."
Senior Toni Fehrenbacher will top the mound for Marshall County. She will be aided by sophomore C Abby Fiessinger, junior SS Chaney Stearns, senior 3B Caitlyn York, eighth-grade 2B Hailey Trexler, freshman Lexee Miller and sophomore Bailey Murphy in the outfield.
Calloway County coach Troy Webb has a young team with some experience with all his starters coming back.
"We can't use the excuse anymore that we have a lot of youth," he said. "We've played enough games, and some have started since they were freshmen, that all we have to do is make plays. When we're focused, we'll play well."
Webb is counting on the battery consisting of freshman sisters Laken Kelso and Kayli Kelso. And he will look to juniors 3B Kristen Kelly, SS Kelsey Douglas, 1B Peyton Garland, CF Danielle Potts and 2B and lead-off hitter Ashlyn Stalls and seniors LF Hannah Lovett and RF Haley Tidwell.
First-year Murray coach Scott Tucker knows his team will be in a fight to make it to the region tournament.
"Marshall County and Calloway County are big schools compared to us," he said. "Marshall is ranked in the coaches poll and Calloway didn't lose any kids so we know it's going to be tough in our district."
The Lady Tigers will look to get it done with pitchers senior Prestley Blane and sophomore Savannah Grogan, and sophomores C Shelby Moss and CF Morghen Turley.
Call James D. Horne, a Sun sports writer, at 270-575-8661 or follow on Twitter @psunsports.